James B. Comey
Federal Bureau of Investigation
FBI/BCRI Annual Conference on Civil Rights, 16th Street Baptist Church
Birmingham, Alabama
May 25, 2016

Law Enforcement and the Communities We Serve: Tied Together in a Single Garment of Destiny

Remarks as delivered.

Thank you so much for what you represent, for what you are, and for allowing me to be a small part of it this morning. To be standing here in this city, in this church that is such an important part of America’s history, America’s progress, and America’s challenge is humbling. I only hope I have something worthy of this setting to share with you.

When I was in college I took a class called “Significant Books in Western Religion.” There were only twelve books studied during that semester, and one of them was actually not a book at all. It was a letter. It was Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

I believe that letter is the seminal work about justice and humanity, and one of the most important things I’ve ever read. And I have read it many times since then.

Dr. King’s message, as you know, is about achieving justice in an imperfect world. It’s about striving for equality in a world that is inherently unfair. It’s about connections as people, as communities, and as a country.

You all know his words, I suspect, but they bear repeating because they were so important then and are so important today. He wrote this: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

It’s hard to fully understand it unless you lived through it—unless you lived in Birmingham in the 1960s. People may have forgotten what it was like for men and women of color—for black people—in this city 50 years ago. But so many of you here today remember it because many of you lived it or your relatives lived it.

Separate schools, separate neighborhoods, separate lives.

Billy clubs, dogs, tear gas, fire hoses.

Unless you fought against it, it’s hard to know it. I can’t possibly know it well enough.

You fought against racism and inequality and the tremendous inertia of the status quo. You fought against people who said, “Be patient. Change will come.” You also fought against what W.E.B. DuBois called the “peculiar indifference” of good people.

Good people who were living their lives. Good people who couldn’t begin to understand what the black community was experiencing. Good people who didn’t want to rock the boat. Good people who failed to recognize that we are all tied together in that single garment of destiny, that they were part of it whether they wanted to be or not.

We have made great progress as a nation. As everybody in this great church knows, it’s not enough. We have a long way to go before we get to a place where – in the words of one of Dr. King’s favorite pieces of scripture and one of mine as well, from the Book of Amos – “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

We still confront racism.

We still confront discrimination.

We still confront the status quo of separate lives, and we still face the “peculiar indifference” of good people.

The issues may be different, in part, than they were 50 years ago, but they’re still all about peoples’ lives and they require that we all take a good, hard look at who we are and who we need to be.

As Joyce said, last year I got the chance to talk about race and law enforcement at Georgetown University. Now, I’m somebody, by virtue of practice—I started out actually reading scripture as a kid in a church—I’m somebody who doesn’t get nervous public speaking. But I was tense before I spoke about race and law enforcement at Georgetown. First, because I had struggled for months to figure out whether or not I had something useful to say and I worried a whole lot how I would be received, especially with such a complicated topic in a 140 character Twitter world.

Then came the assassinations of NYPD Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu. At President Obama’s request, I went to Officer Liu’s funeral and I spoke very briefly. The pain in that small funeral home among his family and friends—and among the thousands of officers standing outside on a cold day—was raw.

As I talked to people that day, I thought, you know, maybe I could contribute something. Maybe if I say things I believe to be true about people, things I believe to be true about law enforcement, maybe I could foster a more open-minded discussion about where we are, we who are, and what we need to be.

As I said then, I think we all need to understand and stare at four hard truths.

First, we in law enforcement have to see ourselves clearly. We need to understand our history, much of which is not pretty. The truth is that the history of law enforcement in the United States was that we were often the enforcers of the status quo, which was mighty rough on a whole lot of folks—especially minority communities, immigrant communities, communities without power. We have to remember that history because the people we serve and protect cannot forget it.

The FBI’s own history is decidedly mixed during the Civil Rights Era. Our interaction with Dr. King is well known, especially to people of color, who will not forget it for good reason. And I’ll say more about that in a few minutes.

But even beyond that shameful episode, our investigative record is also mixed. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal government left protection of civil rights to state and local governments. As you know all too well, many murders went uninvestigated or were covered up or were misidentified as an accident. Evidence was scarce, prosecution was really hard, and trails ran cold. It took the Mississippi Burning case and the Civil Rights Act for the federal government to get off the sidelines and begin to fully protect civil rights for black people.

We were late to this fight. That is true. As we regained trust, the community helped us prosecute and investigate more civil rights cases and effectively gut the Klan—including supporting all the efforts that Doug talked about and you’ve heard about to make sure that justice comes even to the coldest of cases. That’s our history. It’s mixed.

The second hard truth is that research points to the existence of unconscious bias in nearly all of us. We all carry various biases around us and with us. We react differently to a face that looks different than our own. We have to stare at that and own that because biology is not destiny. It’s what we do next, after some reflexive reaction, that makes all the difference.

Third, we have to understand the truth that something can happen to people in law enforcement, especially those working in our vulnerable communities. Police officers often work in environments where a disproportionate percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color. And on an overnight shift, sometimes all an officer sees is trouble. Something can happen to people of goodwill in that environment.

After years of police work, officers sometimes cannot help a certain cynicism creeping into their life—being shaped by their life experiences – and that can lead to mental shortcuts, to assumptions, all of which can tear us apart. We have to own that truth as well.

And last, we have to understand the truth that the problems we face are greater than the divide between law enforcement and the communities we serve. It’s far harder than that.

We in law enforcement have a whole lot to improve and to work on, but the truth is, the cops are not the root cause of our problems in so many of America’s neighborhoods. And a whole lot of people don’t want to talk about that, because it’s so hard.

The problems are so complicated and difficult because they’re about education and employment and opportunity and communities and safe streets and drug treatment and families and role models. It’s about doing the hard work to grow drug-resistant and violence-resistant kids to find the sorts of opportunities that most of us just take for granted, so that those young men never become part of a police officer’s life experience.

That kind of work is a big part of the answer. That is the truth. For our part, those of us in law enforcement need to feel the life experience of the people we encounter, the people we serve and protect. We have to see and work to understand their perspective and how they are experiencing life. We have to re-double our efforts to resist bias and prejudice, to resist shortcuts and assumptions.

We have to work to imagine what it is like to be a law-abiding young man of color walking home from the library late at night and encountering one of us in law enforcement. How does he feel? How does he see us?

We have to understand what it’s like to be a citizen who might worry that calling the police will make things worse. Who might actually fear us. Rather than dismiss that perspective – because it makes no sense to us given the way that we know ourselves – we need to feel it and, with an open heart and an open mind, work to change that perspective.

And it’s a two-way street. Citizens really need to see and imagine what police officers see through the windshields of their cars. What they feel as they approach a car with tinted windows during a late night car stop.

They need to imagine why officers might be tense during that encounter. They need to feel an officer’s heart race as she walks up to a door answering a domestic disturbance call not knowing what she might encounter on the other side of that door. They need to see officers who are quietly and professionally helping the most vulnerable members of this community.

If they take the time to do that, I know what they’ll see. They’ll see officers who are human, who are overwhelmingly doing the right thing for the right reasons, and who are too often operating in communities—and facing challenges—that most of us choose to drive around.

Back in 1985, as I was getting ready to leave the University of Chicago law school, that neighborhood was starting to change in ominous ways. Kids were shooting kids over cocaine, innocent people were being caught in the crossfire, violent crime and murder rates were starting to rise dramatically.

Without knowing it, it was actually the beginning of a time in America when America’s cities – and especially minority neighborhoods – would experience historic and horrific levels of violence.

Together we made – as a county, as communities, as law enforcement and as citizens – unimaginable progress against that violence over the last generation.

Now we stand here all of these years later and we’re seeing an increase in violent crime and homicide, again, centered in some of our communities. And that trouble is not only worrisome, but complicated and layered and painful, coming as it does now.

Because I imagine two lines in American life. One line is law enforcement. The other line is the citizens we serve and protect, especially in communities of color. I actually feel those lines arcing away from each other, and that arcing has been going on for the last couple of years and I believe it’s continuing.

Each incident that involves real or perceived police misconduct drives this line this way. Each incident that involves an assault or the killing of a police officer bends this line this way. That is a bad place to be. And just as those lines are arcing away from each other – and maybe because they’re arcing away from each other in some places—we’re experiencing a sharp uptick in violence in some of America’s most vulnerable communities.

Something is happening in America. A whole lot more people are dying. In some places more this year than last year and more last year than the year before, and I do not know why. And those homicides are happening nearly entirely in communities of color.

You’ve seen it right here in Birmingham. Last year was the deadliest year you’ve experienced since 1988. Some have attributed Birmingham’s rising murder rate to violence related to the drug trade or to the high rate of poverty.

But from city to city, we just don’t know what’s going on. And in some places, violent crime is actually down.

We’ve all been staring at the map, cities all over the country – and the calendar, all happening in the last couple of years – and seeing cities that have nothing in common with each other experiencing this uptick at the same time. What is the connection among Birmingham and Baltimore, Las Vegas and Dallas, Chicago and Kansas City? A whole lot of people are asking great questions that I cannot answer.

Is it synthetic drugs? Is it heroin? Is it more guns? Is it budget cuts that are hammering police departments and their ability to do community policing? Is it some change in our culture about how we treat one another and resolve disputes?

Although we can’t be sure, we doubt there is a single cause in any community. We think it is more likely the result of a combination of factors, including what I was just talking about—the disconnect between communities and law enforcement officers in different cities around the country.

Now, sometimes when I talk about this I hear people say, “Well, here’s the thing though. It’s not that big a deal because it’s an increase off of historic lows. It’s probably just a blip.”

I don’t think of it as a blip. I think of it as young men dying. Maybe it will go away in a couple years—two, three years it will go away, maybe. But in the meantime, too many people are going to die and we have to talk about it now.

So far this year, 216 people have been murdered in the City of Chicago. Las Vegas has had more than 70 murders. And I can tell you this: People are not dying on Chicago’s Miracle Mile. Homicides are not up along the Las Vegas Strip. Those spikes in violence seem to be happening in what you could call “cities within cities.”

Over here is a city with safe neighborhoods, clean streets, and good schools. People can wash their cars in the evenings, sit on their porch, and walk their dogs.

Over here is a city where parents are afraid to let their kids play outside. Where a good education is an uphill battle and the street corners are becoming war zones.

Most of us in America can drive around this city, right? Because we live apart from that violence. We don’t live in that city within the city. We can escape it. We think, “Hey, it’s not my neighborhood. It’s not my problem.”

But these neighborhoods belong to every single one of us. It is our problem. Not just the police. Not just teachers or city council members or community leaders. But everyday citizens. The same citizens who so often show that “peculiar indifference” to something that is not immediately part of their reality. We are all guilty of that.

But when the Chicago Tribune publishes every Monday the number of people who were murdered that weekend and the number keeps growing, everyone pays a price. Everyone is affected indirectly. And it will take everyone to make it right.

I think if Dr. King were with us today, he would suggest to us ways to help us have these difficult conversations. He would urge the rest of this country, I suspect, to have the conversations the way they have them in Birmingham. I think he would tell us to work to have open hearts and open minds, and to see each other more clearly.

Because it is hard to hate up close. It is hard to hate someone you know, someone whose life you have come to understand. And only by getting up close to each other can we begin to arc those lines back together. And another way to arc those lines back together is through transparency and accountability in law enforcement.

First and foremost, we need more data in this country. And I know that sounds like a boring thing, data. But data means facts and facts help us find truth and understanding. We cannot address issues about use of force and officer-involved shootings—or why violent crime is up in some cities within cities—if we don’t know the circumstances.

We need to improve the way we report, analyze, and use information and crime statistics. And we need that information to be accurate, to be timely, and to be accessible to everybody, or it doesn’t do much good. Without it, every single conversation in this country about policing, about law enforcement policy, about criminal justice is incomplete and uninformed and that is a very bad place to be.

So for the FBI’s part, we are pushing for a more modern system of collecting data on officer-involved incidents and violent crime at all levels. It’s going to take time. It is a big lift. It’s going to take us a few years to get everybody on board and get all of the databases up and running, but we are going to get there.

I have a certain amount of impatience around this, as I bet you do as well. But we’re making progress. Folks are thinking about it the same way. And another thing we can do in law enforcement is better reflect the communities that we serve and protect.

In this area, though, I don’t want to stand here and talk about what other people should do because I live in a huge glass house. The FBI special agent cadre has been growing slowly and steadily more white for the last decade. Eighty-three percent of our special agents are white, while the United States continues to get more diverse, more complicated, more wonderful, in my view.

I have no problem with white people. In fact, I’m quite fond of tall, awkward white people. But if all we have is me, we are not good enough. Becoming a more diverse FBI is of course the right thing to do, but it’s also about being more effective in carrying out our responsibilities and our mission in this wonderful country of ours.

We are more credible and we make better decisions when we bring different perspectives to bear. We know more, we see more, we are better. So we need to be more diverse in race and religion, in ethnicity and background. We have to work hard to overcome the cynicism that some young people feel about law enforcement and whether to choose that to be their life. And we need to especially push hard in communities that are underrepresented in our ranks. That’s going to take a whole lot of energy and innovation.

I will have failed if I leave this 10-year job in seven years and three months from now and I have not changed the inflection of that line.

But the good news is that we know what we need to do. We’ve got to show more talented people what a cool place the FBI is to work, and we have to make sure that a whole lot of good people help us get to that place.

And the good news is, inside the FBI we’ve got a whole lot of people who are talented and have hearts as big as all outdoors. People of all backgrounds should want to work for the FBI because we have the extraordinary power to do good. But because we have that kind of power, we also need to constantly remind ourselves of the dangers of power.

John Adams once wrote to Thomas Jefferson, “Power always thinks it has a great soul.” In my experience, people are at their most dangerous when they are certain their cause is just and certain their facts are right. Those in power must always remember that, teach that, and reinforce that.

I believe the Holocaust to be the most significant single event in world history. It was the most horrific display of inhumanity, in a way and to a degree that strains our ability to capture it with words. But it was also the most horrific display of humanity—of our capacity for evil and for moral surrender. People so easily allow themselves to surrender their moral authority to a group and allow the loudest voices—the lowest common denominator—to hijack that group.

That’s why I’ve continued the practice that my predecessor Louie Freeh started of requiring every new FBI special agent in training and every new intelligence analyst in training to go to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. I want them to learn what abuse of authority looks like on a breathtaking scale.

But I also want them, as they’re there, to confront something that is more personal, more painful, and, in some ways, more frightening. I want them to see our humanity and what we are capable of as people.

I want them to see that although that slaughter of millions was led by sick and evil people, those sick and evil leaders were joined by and followed by people who loved their families. People who took soup to a sick neighbor. People who went to church and who gave to charity. Those good people, so-called, convinced themselves that this slaughter of millions of innocent people was the right thing to do – the thing they had to do. Ordinary good people did that, and that should frighten all of us.

It’s also the reason why I now require every new analyst and agent in training to take a course dedicated to the FBI’s interactions with Dr. King. And it’s why, as part of that curriculum, they must visit the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington.

In my office I have one of those big old desks, and so that I don’t ruin it, it has glass on the top of it. In the right-hand corner, under the glass, there’s a single piece of paper. It’s from October of 1963 and it’s a memo from J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI—I’m the seventh—the first director of the FBI to the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy.

And the memo asked for permission to bug Dr. King—to wiretap him. It’s five sentences long and it is utterly devoid of factual content. It simply asserts there’s a “communist influence in the racial situation.” There’s no date limitation. There’s no geographic limitation. It simply says we need to wiretap this guy.

Director Hoover signed the request, Bobby Kennedy signed the approval, and it was done. But here’s the hard part. I have no doubt that those two men believed they were doing the right thing. They were certain the cause was just and certain that their facts were right. And in the absence of constraint and oversight, there was nobody to tell them otherwise.

I don’t keep that piece of history under the glass on the corner my desk because I’m trying to send some message criticizing Kennedy or criticizing Hoover. It’s bigger than that, actually.

I keep it there in that spot to remind me of what we in the FBI are responsible for and what we as humans are capable of, and why it is vital that power be overseen, be constrained, be checked.

Because that’s the corner of my desk where every morning I review the stack of requests that we’re about to send to the federal court to seek permission to wiretap people—for a limited period of time—in our national security investigations.

Those applications are often as thick as my wrist or thicker. It is a huge pain in the neck to get permission to bug somebody in the United States, and that’s the way it should be. That’s constraint. That’s oversight. That’s power being checked.

It sits there, that single piece of paper, to remind me and everybody else who hears about it to be very careful about being certain that the cause is just and certain that the facts are right. And to cherish at all times constraint and the rule of law.

So if we admit that we are capable of the greatest inhumanity—that we are capable of surrendering our moral authority and of believing too strongly in our own righteousness—if we are willing to admit that our own humanity can be so imperfect and so very dangerous, we also have to recognize that we as a people are capable of the greatest care and consideration for each other and for our communities.

We are ordinary people who are truly capable, despite all the flaws in our humanity, of extraordinary things, particularly when we stand together.

When everyday people think about the Civil Rights Movement, they think about Dr. King or Medgar Evers or Malcolm X or John Lewis. Rosa Parks, maybe. James Farmer. Bayard Rustin.

But along with those famous folks, there were hundreds and thousands of foot soldiers—ordinary people doing extraordinary things. People who walked calmly down the street in their Sunday best, calling for equality. People who held hands and crossed a bridge, walking step by step towards sheer hatred and violence. People who risked their lives to take a stand and to right a wrong.

People like Bishop Calvin Woods. I told him I was going to embarrass him today. We’re very lucky to have that great American with us here today.

In the early 1960s—for those of you who are visiting—Bishop Woods was sentenced to six months of hard labor for simply speaking out against segregated buses. He told his congregation that if they paid their fare, they had the right to sit where they wanted—to sit and ride the way they wanted to ride.

Bishop Woods refused to be silenced. He continued to organize sit-ins, to demonstrate at lunch counters, and to lead other people in prayer to send a message. He said he kept marching—kept peacefully protesting—because of his fellow citizens. Because despite the beatings and the jailings and the bombings, the spirit and determination of the black people of Birmingham could not be destroyed.

These were all ordinary people who understood, deep down in their bones, that we’re all tied together in a single garment of destiny.

Another person who understood that was Charles Morgan. Morgan was this ordinary 33-year-old white man—somebody we may easily have assumed had that usual “peculiar indifference” to the black community. But on September 16th—the day after Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley were murdered in this church—Morgan did an extraordinary thing. He stood up and spoke out at the all-white Birmingham Young Men’s Business Club.

In his words, he said, quote, “Four little girls were killed in Birmingham yesterday. A mad, remorseful community asks, ‘Who did it? Who threw that bomb?’ The answer should be, ‘We all did it.’” The one who threw the bomb is “every…individual who…spreads the seeds of his hate to his neighbor and his son.”

Morgan didn’t win any friends that day and he didn’t change any minds. And for his courage, he and his family got a whole lot of death threats and, not long after the bombing, he was forced to close his law practice here and move his family out of town and on to a life of speaking for the powerless.

Now, he didn’t have to stand up. He could have continued to drive around the problem. The bombing didn’t happen at his church or in his neighborhood, but as Dr. King said, Morgan could no longer be an outsider.

People in this church know better than anyone that today’s civil rights struggle isn’t over. In many ways, the struggle is more broad and far-reaching. In many ways, it harder now, because folks assume it’s over—we fixed that mess in the 60s, right?

We in the FBI will continue to root out hate crimes and to investigate abuses of power and authority. We will continue to protect the civil rights and civil liberties of every American.

We recently rewrote the FBI’s mission statement to make it clearer. Our mission today is simple: to protect the American people and to uphold the Constitution of the United States. That is it. That is who we are; that is what we stand for.

But it will take all of us – every single member of every community—to fight for and deliver change. To fight for equality and fairness. To stop driving around problems. To be agitators and insiders, in the best way. In the way that Dr. King taught us.

We each have a responsibility to see one another up close...to stand up for justice and to sow peace whenever and wherever we can. To strengthen the fabric that ties us all together into that single garment of destiny.

Thank you for doing that. Thank you to Birmingham for being the example to this entire country. Would that every community strive to become like you. Thank you for that work and thank you for allowing me to speak in this remarkable place. Thank you.