On Friday, October 19, the Kennedy Political Union hosted former Attorney General Loretta Lynch in Bender Arena at American University. It was a celebratory event, part of a special All-American Weekend that welcomed AU alumni, families, students, and community members. This year is also the 50th anniversary of KPU, the student-run lecture series that’s brought so many national and world leaders to campus. With an appearance by Lynch, the first African-American woman attorney general, AU enjoyed the company of another historic changemaker.
In her introductory remarks, AU president Sylvia M. Burwell drew a connection between Lynch and another former attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy, who ran his groundbreaking but fatal presidential campaign in 1968. KPU was founded that same year and named after the Kennedy family for their commitment to service.
Burwell quoted from a speech RFK once gave before law students: “’[Lawyers] have a continuing responsibility to uphold the fundamental principles of justice from which the law cannot depart,’” Burwell relayed. “Our guest this evening held that same office. And I was able to witness firsthand her upholding to that special duty. That responsibility to uphold the fundamental principles of justice.”
Event co-sponsors were the AUSG Women’s Initiative, the AU NAACP, the Phi Alpha Delta fraternity, the AU Pre-Law Society, and the She’s the First organization. American University Washington College of Law professor Angela J. Davis moderated the discussion. Here are 10 memorable insights from Lynch.
1. Lynch centered her speech around the importance of evidence and facts. “Our current post-truth politics threatens to undo decades of progress in vitally important areas of our life. The post-truth mindset not only ignores facts, it shuts down other perspectives. And if we cannot hear and acknowledge someone else’s point of view, even their pain, we can’t make progress toward a shared resolution of our problems.”
2. She called attention to controversial state election measures, which critics consider an attack on voting rights. “We are now in the midst of a wave of voter suppression efforts, the intensity of which and the likes of which, we have not seen propagated under color of law since the days of Jim Crow. And that may sound harsh, but it is the truth.”
3. She tied efforts to combat voter fraud to post-truth policies, particularly in her home state of North Carolina. “Research over several states has found an infinitesimal amount of in-person [voter] fraud,” she said. "This excuse, in a post-truth political culture, is used to justify restrictive ID practices that are designed to carve out the identifications that mostly minorities use.”
4. Lynch then spoke passionately about the franchise. “Curtailing the fundamental right—the birthright to vote—harms both the individual, but it harms all of us. It weakens our democracy.”
5. Lynch urged all sides of the political spectrum to conduct reasoned, civil debate. “Those of you in this great university know that true discourse and agreement only comes about when both sides feel heard and acknowledged,” she said. “There is tremendous power in hearing someone else’s truth.”
6. Based on her experiences with law enforcement and community relations, she noted that police reform is not anti-police. “When you truly listen to both sides in this issue, you will hear the same thing: ‘Don’t judge my entire community.’ ‘Don’t judge my profession, based on the actions of a few.’ ‘Don’t just look at what I wear, be it blue jeans and a hoodie or dress blues, and assume that you know what’s in my heart.’”
7. She discussed Justice Department work on behalf of LGBTQ rights and general equality. “We knew that the truth of our Constitution demanded equal protection of the laws. And our history shows us the danger of denying that protection to anyone, particularly marginalized groups.”
8. Lynch recalled someone asking her why the transgender “bathroom” bills were so important to oppose. “What do we have to lose aside from the universal truth that binds us all together, as Americans and as humans? We stand to lose our soul. We stand to lose our humanity. We stand to lose our children. Nothing that we can afford to let go.”
9. On facing hurdles in government: “Many times making change, particularly here in Washington, is like turning an ocean liner,” she said. “You have a wonderful idea, and a great team, and you have a plan that’s really going to help people. But literally getting it out the door and getting it done can sometimes be very, very challenging.”
10. In response to a question from the Women’s Initiative, Lynch discussed how students can get involved even if they’re disheartened by the current political environment. “It’s time to learn as much as you can about politics. It’s time to still take those entry-level jobs—don’t shy away from the field. So if the wheel turns into a way that’s more conducive to what you want to do, you’re ready. And you have the backing and you have the skills and you have the knowledge.”