Just days from the end of her tenure, Loretta Lynch took the stage Sunday at a historic Baptist church in Birmingham, Ala., to deliver her final planned speech as U.S. attorney general.
“We can’t take progress for granted,” Lynch told the congregation. “We have to work. There’s no doubt that we still have a way to go — a long way to go.”
In her speech, delivered on the eve of Martin Luther King Day, Lynch focused on her auspicious setting, Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. Last week, President Obama designated the church part of a new national monument commemorating the civil rights movement.
It was at the church in 1963 that a Ku Klux Klan bombing left four black girls dead and 22 other people injured.
“It reminds us, as few places can, that freedom is not free,” Lynch said. “And the price of freedom is constant vigilance.”
She said she has seen the concerns that the progress made by King and others during the civil rights movement will be undone, “that with the turn of the electoral wheel, we will be seen as children of a lesser god.”
But she countered those concerns with a call to hope, saying she has seen the hard work of her colleagues, of police officers reaching out to community members, of activists raising their voices.
“We are Americans, and we have always pushed forward,” Lynch said, repeating a call to work that became something of a mantra: “Every generation has to work.”
The speech comes on the heels of a 161-page Justice Department report on the Chicago Police Department, which concluded the department “engages in a pattern or practice of the use of excessive force.” That report included “numerous incidents” of shooting at fleeing suspects and observed “routinely abusive behavior” toward minority communities in the city.
In an interview with NPR’s Michel Martin before her speech Sunday, Lynch called the Chicago report “emblematic of where our practice is: We try and look at the whole problem.
“We’ve got to look at the causes within the police departments,” she continued. “We talk to community members who came in and told us their stories stories of pain, stories of loss — but also stories of police officers with whom they connected.”
Asked about her regrets as she prepares to leave office, Lynch said again she regrets her unscheduled meeting last year with former President Bill Clinton, a conversation that raised questions about whether she could remain impartial during Hillary Clinton’s email investigation. She later said she would accept the FBI’s findings in the probe.
But the Justice Department is “more than the work of more than one group of people and the work of more than one administration,” she told Michel. “The work that we do spans time, it spans generations and we build on it.”
She added: “We have to admit that change is hard and policing is changing a lot in this country. That being said, I still believe that the work that we have done has been positive.”