Federal prosecutor Loretta Lynch stood before a Baptist church congregation and criticized a “morally lost” society where minorities were taking to the streets to protest injustice and police violence.
“There is a poverty of spirit afflicting America that is crippling it,” she said. “Los Angeles has been burning for a long time, but no one noticed it. New York City is burning right now. Chicago is burning. Atlanta is burning.”
“No one notices until the fire inside builds and strikes an outer match,” she added, “and the flames rise above the skyline.”
Lynch, President Barack Obama’s nominee to be U.S. attorney general, didn’t deliver those words after the recent unrest over the deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, or New York. She was speaking in 1992 in South Carolina after Los Angeles was rocked by riots over the acquittal of policemen in the beating of another black man, Rodney King.
In the years since, Lynch has tempered her words as she has risen up the law-enforcement hierarchy to become the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn. But her early speeches reveal a prosecutor passionate about racial justice and other social issues who believes the government must address discrimination.
“She hasn’t lost the social vision, or her passion for justice, or believing in what is right,” said her father, Lorenzo Lynch, an 82-year-old retired pastor in North Carolina. “She has matured in the way she puts things. But she will keep the discussion going.”
Supporters say that makes her uniquely qualified to lead the Justice Department amid the fallout over the latest deadly incidents involving black men and police. Beyond pledging a “fair and thorough” investigation into the death of Eric Garner in New York that her office is leading, Lynch hasn’t spoken of the protests or underlying issues that sparked them.
The 1992 speech was one of more than 75 provided by the White House to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold hearings on Lynch’s nomination next week, and reviewed by Bloomberg News. The speeches span more than 600 pages and begin with the address to a Woman’s Day program in Greenville, South Carolina, when Lynch was a 33-year-old prosecutor in Brooklyn.
They paint a portrait of a North Carolina native, the first black woman to be nominated for attorney general, who was inspired by her parents and siblings to enter public service.
Particularly in her early speeches, the Harvard Law School graduate comes across as ardent about her work as a prosecutor, social justice and trying to address racial disparities, especially in policing.
Lynch, 55, who spent eight years in private practice before being tapped a second time to be U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, often described the conflicted relationship the black community has with law enforcement, especially African-Americans who wear badges.
In 2000, after having been nominated to her first stint as U.S. attorney, Lynch spoke of how black police officers and prosecutors “often face a dual challenge -- trying to improve a system that traditionally was one of the harshest to us.”
If confirmed by the Senate, she’ll succeed Attorney General Eric Holder, an Obama confidant who has often waded into matters of civil rights, policing, voting rights, and racial disparities in sentencing. In 2009, he even called the U.S. a “nation of cowards” on race.
Lynch never went that far in her public addresses, but she came close.
In her June 1992 speech at the South Carolina church, she forcefully criticized the nation for the way it addressed poverty and the first Gulf War.
“A society that takes away hundreds of thousands of jobs, and then blames people for not working, is morally lost,” she said. “A society that drops everything to save Kuwait, but barely lifts a finger to help the 13 million American children living in poverty in this country is sending the moral message that those children are not important, that they don’t matter. And if our society tells people that they don’t matter, how can we expect people to act like anything matters?”
Though she was the second black U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Lynch saw her ascension as historic in a 2000 speech: “I took office last summer, and as I did I am sure that a long line of dead white men rolled over in their graves. But at the same time, I am sure that just a stone’s throw away from here, in the African burial ground, a long line of people for whom the law was an instrument of oppression, sat up and smiled.”
As time wore on, she softened her tone. In 2011, she focused a Black History Month address on why African-Americans fought in the Civil War, saying, “We can be no less brave in fulfilling our roles in today’s society,”
Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Lynch’s speeches and writing “provide an understanding into her decision-making and thought process, which are important insights into how she might act as attorney general.”
“I look forward to learning more during her hearing,” Grassley said in a statement.
The speeches also provide insights into Lynch’s personality and values. She said she wept in 2008 when Obama was elected the nation’s first black president. And she hasn’t been shy about discussing her struggle to find meaning in life.
After graduating from Harvard, she worked at a major New York law firm, a job that “engaged my mind but not my heart,” she told an audience in 2000.
One Friday night, Lynch said, she passed out at her desk, and her secretary rushed her to the hospital to be treated for exhaustion. She soon left to become a federal prosecutor.
To emphasize the importance of her new work, she returned repeatedly to personal vignettes. She often spoke of an informant in a drug case who kissed her feet after she agreed to seek a more lenient sentence on his behalf.
“This never happened on Wall Street!” she wrote in a 2013 address, in describing the difference between her experiences as a prosecutor and as an attorney at a law firm.
And she hailed the bravery of a witness to a double kidnapping and murder committed by Asian gang members. Whereas others avoided prosecutors, the man willingly testified at great personal risk. “When we asked him about it,” Lynch said in 2000, “he simply said, ‘I had to, it was my duty.’”
“I think of him often when I’m working on a difficult matter,” she said. “Ready to throw my hands up, he gives me an extra push.”
She spoke about prosecuting cases that exposed the New York City police force “at its worst,” including the brutal sodomizing of a Haitian immigrant in 1997.
Lynch said she learned a number of lessons from such cases. One was that she admired good cops who “conquered their culture” and helped her prosecute the offenders and “foil the coverups.”
She also learned that police must build closer ties with the community. “While crime is down,” she said in 2000, “there is a large part of our community that still does not feel safe, and that means that law enforcement has not done its job, no matter what the numbers say.”
In several speeches, Lynch recited the courage and service of her relatives, including a brother who was a Navy SEAL. Her father allowed civil rights organizers to meet in his church basement, and her mother picked cotton to pay for college.
“She was determined that her children would have different choices,” Lynch said.
She once described the extraordinary sacrifice made by a great, great grandfather. In Lynch’s telling, he was a free black preacher in antebellum North Carolina and fell in love with a slave. When he was unable to purchase the woman’s freedom, he re-entered bondage and married her.
“That’s a lot to live up to,” she said.