Thank you, President [Sherrilyn] Ifill, for those kind words – and thank you all for such a warm welcome. It’s a pleasure to be here today. And it’s a privilege to join dedicated public servants like Governor [Deval] Patrick and Governor [Doug] Wilder – along with trailblazers like Charlayne Hunter-Gault – in celebrating the work of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; in commemorating the victory this organization helped to secure 60 years ago tomorrow; and in recommitting ourselves to the critical work that still lies before us.
I’d like to thank our hosts at the National Press Club, and every member and supporter of LDF, for making this important observance possible. It’s a tremendous honor to take part in this celebration – and to stand with lawyers who participated in the Brown case; the families of courageous plaintiffs who made this landmark decision possible; and with Mrs. Cissy Marshall, wife of the late Thurgood Marshall – one of our nation’s greatest civil rights pioneers – who helped found this organization nearly three quarters of a century ago.
Since 1940, LDF has performed critical work to rally Americans from all backgrounds to the unifying cause of justice – standing on the front lines of our fight to guarantee security, advance opportunity, and ensure equal treatment under law. Your enduring legacy is written not only in the words of seminal legal opinions, but in the remarkable, once-unimaginable progress that so many of us have witnessed even within our own lifetimes. The fact that I serve in an administration led by another African-American bears witness to that progress. Your actions, alongside those of countless citizens whose names may be unknown to us – but whose contributions and sacrifices endure – have forever altered the course of our great nation’s history.
Decades ago, brave individuals from across the country – sustained by the strength of their convictions, fueled by their desire for change, and represented by lawyers from this eminent organization – including visionary attorneys like Thurgood Marshall, Robert Carter, and Jack Greenberg – embarked on a dangerous, long and grueling march that culminated on May 17, 1954, at the United States Supreme Court.
It was a march that led through difficult and uncertain terrain – from the injustice of Plessy v. Ferguson to the dark days of Jim Crow and slavery by another name; from the discrimination and violence and the strange fruit that ultimately gave rise to a unified Civil Rights Movement and to the founding and growth of LDF. It was a march that tested the soul of this country – and questioned, as President Abraham Lincoln once asked, whether a nation dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal “could long endure.” And it was a march that was immeasurably strengthened by the transformative power of a single Court decision, when nine jurists came together – led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, with the eyes of the world upon them – to unanimously declare that separate was inherently unequal.
I was just three years old in 1954, when Brown was decided. Thanks to some of the pioneers in this room, my generation was the first to grow up in a world in which “separate but equal” was no longer the law of the land. Even as a child growing up in New York City, I understood, as I learned about the decision, that its impact was truly groundbreaking – bringing the law in line with the fundamental truth of the equality of our humanity.
Yet, although Brown marked a major victory, like anyone old enough to remember the turbulence of the 1960s, I also knew – and saw firsthand – that this country wouldn’t automatically translate the words of Brown into substantive change. The integration of our schools – a process that was halting, confrontational, and at times even bloody – did not by itself put an end to the beliefs and attitudes that had given rise to the underlying inequity in the first place. The outlawing of institutional segregation did not by itself soften the enmity – and alleviate the vicious bias – that had been directed against African-American people and communities for generations. And the rejection, in its clearest form by our highest court, of legal discrimination could not – by itself – wash away the hostility that would, for years, fuel new, perversely innovative attempts to keep “separate but equal” in place.
These markers of progress could not forestall the “Massive Resistance” policies that followed in states across the country, in which public schools were closed and private academies were opened for white children only. They could not avert the protests that greeted the Little Rock Nine – brave young students who required the protection of the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army to enroll in an all-white high school. And they could not prevent Alabama Governor George Wallace from making his infamous “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” in 1963 – nine years after Brown – when two courageous African-American students – one of whom, Vivian Malone, would much later become my sister-in-law – attempted to register for classes at the University of Alabama.
But thanks to Brown – and to the developments that followed – on the day when Vivian and her classmate James Hood walked into that university, they were protected not only by the power of their convictions; not only by the strength of the National Guard and the authority of the United States Department of Justice; but by the force of binding law. When those nine students entered Little Rock Central High School, they were supported by all nine members of a resolute Supreme Court. And when millions of civil rights advocates and supporters began to rally, to march, to stand up – and even to sit in – in order to eradicate the discrimination they continued to face in schools and other public accommodations, they stood not only on the side of equality – and on the side of that which was right – but on the side of settled justice.
This was the sea change that Brown v. Board of Education signaled. And this was the progress it made possible. It did not instantaneously – or painlessly – tear down the walls that divided so much of the nation. But it did unlock the gates. And it continues to guide LDF’s work, and the Justice Department’s civil rights enforcement efforts, as we work to end the divisions and disparities that persist even today. After all, as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said recently – in an insightful dissent in the Michigan college admissions case – we must not “wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. …The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race.” And, I would add, to act, to act, to eradicate the existence of still too persistent inequalities.
I want to assure you – as we mark this historic anniversary – that my colleagues and I remain as committed to this cause as ever before. While the number of school districts that remain under desegregation court orders has decreased significantly in just the past decade, the Department continues to actively enforce and monitor nearly 200 desegregation cases where school districts have not yet fulfilled their legal obligation to eliminate segregation “root and branch.” In those cases, we work to ensure that all students have the building blocks of educational success – from access to advanced placement classes, to facilities without crumbling walls and old technology, to safe and positive learning environments. We’re partnering with the Department of Education to reform school discipline policies that fuel the “school-to-prison pipeline” – and that have resulted in students of color facing suspensions and expulsions at a rate three times higher than that of their white peers. And we are moving in a variety of ways to dismantle racial barriers and promote inclusion, from America’s classrooms, to our boardrooms, to our voting booths – and far beyond.
So long as I have the privilege of serving as Attorney General of the United States, this Justice Department will never stop working to expand the promise of a nation where everyone has the same opportunity to grow, to contribute, and to succeed. By calling for new voting protections – and by challenging unjust restrictions that discriminate against vulnerable populations or communities of color – we’ll keep striving to ensure the free exercise of every citizen’s most fundamental rights. By leading implementation of another landmark Supreme Court ruling – in United States v. Windsor – we’ll ensure that lawfully married same-sex couples can receive the federal benefits and protections they deserve. And by fighting for comprehensive immigration reform – that includes an earned path to citizenship, so that men and women who are Americans in everything but name can step out of the shadows and take their place in society – we’ll make certain that children who have always called America home can build bright futures in, and enrich, the country they love without fear.
In these and other efforts, there are undoubtedly difficult times ahead. Challenges, old and new, remain before us. There are too many wedded to the past and who irrationally fear the new America that is emerging. They misconstrue our past: America has been at its best when we have acted to embrace, and make positive, the changes we have been forced to confront. And so it must be again.
Government will never be able to surmount the obstacles we face on its own. But, especially on days like today, I am reminded of the extraordinary courage that – since 1940 – has led seemingly-ordinary citizens and LDF leaders to stand together, to transform the power of individual voices into the strength of collective action, and to bring about historic changes like the one we gather to celebrate: changes that pull this nation closer to its founding promise. Changes that make real the blessings of our Constitution. And changes that codify self-evident truths into settled law.
As I look around this room, and with great faith in the American people, I cannot help but feel optimistic about our ability to build on the progress we celebrate this week. And I have no doubt that, with your continued leadership, with your boundless passion, and with your unyielding courage, we can continue the legacy that’s been entrusted to us. We can extend the promise that Brown, and those who made it possible, worked so hard to secure. And we can build that more just society that everyone in this nation deserves.