Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein cited the history of the NAACP and some of its most prominent past members, including the Rev. Martin Luther King, in calling Tuesday for a bold but measured approach in addressing the problem of violent crime in American cities.
Remarks by the former top Maryland federal prosecutor kicked off Tuesday's slate of activities at the 108th NAACP National Convention, a gathering of speakers and delegates from across the United States being held at the Baltimore Convention Center through Wednesday.
Rosenstein spoke only briefly and did not touch upon recent criticism directed at him and Attorney General Jeff Sessions by President Donald J. Trump. Trump had previously turned down an invitation to appear before the civil rights organization.
He mentioned Trump by name only once, quoting a passage from the president's inaugural address that said Americans "want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families and good jobs for themselves."
He called those "just and reasonable demands" and said the Department of Justice is working to protect them.
"Today we are united in a common goal — equal justice under the law," he said.
Other speakers Tuesday included the Rev. Jesse Jackson, former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Rosenstein told delegates that even as King pursued a path of civil disobedience in his civil rights efforts during the 1950s and 1960s, he also cited the importance of observing just laws.
He added that a task force on crime and public safety ordered by Sessions several months ago is to deliver its preliminary recommendations this week — and is scheduled to issue a final report to Trump in 2018.
"We are developing new programs and strategies to work with communities and state and local agencies to reduce crime. Our goal is not to fill prisons. Our goal is to save lives," Rosenstein said to applause.
Reverenc William Barber speaks at the NAACP convention at the Baltimore Convention Center. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun video)
The only member of the Trump administration to appear at the conference Tuesday, Rosenstein shared no further details on the task force or its findings so far.
Jackson ticked off some of the NAACP's key achievements since its founding in 1909, including the advancement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, before telling hundreds of delegates in no uncertain terms that the organization remains necessary and relevant because the fight for equality is far from over.
Enjoining the crowd to repeat many of his lines, as he has done for decades, he derided the Electoral College as "a Confederate law," declared that "we won this election — Trump did not win," and called the belief that voter fraud exists in the United States itself "a fraud."
Trump defeated Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College count but lost the popular vote total by more than 3 million.
Mfume, a former five-term U.S. congressman who served as NAACP president and CEO from 1996 through 2004, spoke about what today's NAACP can do to preserve past gains while also applying its muscle to the many entrenched civil rights challenges minorities face today: joblessness, substandard health care, and the kind of police brutality he said led to the deaths of young black men Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Philando Castile and "too many others".
"The NAACP has not given up on the American idea or the American possibility," he said. "And I ask Americans of all races not to give up [either]."
Speaking before Jackson, McAuliffe said that "a concerted effort to suppress the vote" still exists, and he counted his administration's success in securing the right to vote for more than 240,000 convicted felons despite resistance from a Republican-led legislature as a countermeasure.
"We still have 6 million disenfranchised felons in the USA; we still have a long way to go," he said.
Rosenstein placed his Baltimore experiences front and center in his remarks, citing several anecdotes from his time in the city.
One was the final case he handled: the prosecution of seven city police officers accused of corruption.
"Building confidence in law enforcement is one of our biggest challenges," he said, adding that though "those corrupt officers do not represent all police. Most officers are honorable people trying every day to do the right thing.
"Citizens [also] have an obligation to show respect for the police," he said. "Building a good relationship is a two-way street."