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Ashcroft defends civil rights record at MLK event

From Terry Frieden

John Ashcroft
John Ashcroft

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- One day after the Justice Department urged the Supreme Court to reject a affirmative action plan, Attorney General John Ashcroft Friday avoided the subject in a civil rights address honoring the memory of Martin Luther King Jr.

"More eloquently than any attorney general before or since, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of making justice -- quote -- 'a reality for all God's children,' " Ashcroft told a gathering of civil rights lawyers and supporters at the Justice Department.

"From the first days of our administration, honoring the diversity of the American people has been a priority for President Bush and for me," Ashcroft said.

"And I am pleased to be able to say that never before in history has there been a more diverse and more qualified team of presidentially appointed leaders here at the Justice Department," he said.

The largely African-American crowd of Justice Department employees responded with restrained but polite applause.

While avoiding mention of the Justice Department's position on the potential landmark University of Michigan affirmative action case, the attorney general strongly defended the two-year record of his Civil Rights Division.

Ashcroft said his department was eradicating police misconduct, and he cited the settlement to end excessive police force in Cincinnati following racial unrest.

Ashcroft pointed to settlements of long-running desegregation cases in Mississippi and Yonkers, New York, as evidence of a commitment to reduce barriers to quality education for all children.

The attorney general praised his civil rights prosecutors for taking a tough stand against hate crimes aimed at Muslim citizens in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks. He said 390 investigations of possible hate crimes had been opened since.

And Ashcroft said his department is actively protecting the access to and integrity of elections in the United States, shown by the hundreds of federal observers sent to Florida and other potential trouble spots at polling stations last November.

"The strong presence and commitment of Department of Justice officials resulted in a smooth election with far fewer complaints than have been reported in recent years," Ashcroft said.

Although Ashcroft's African-American Deputy Larry Thompson was not present, Assistant Attorney General Ralph Boyd, the African American leader of the Civil Rights Division participated in the ceremonies marking the MLK birthday.

The Justice Department and other federal agencies will be closed Monday in honor of the civil rights leader's birthday.

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