Attorney General Eric Holder delivered remarks of reflection at the Morgan State University commencement ceremony where he commemorated the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education on May 17.
Decades ago, nearly 200 plaintiffs from across the country joined together in a class-action lawsuit to challenge the doctrine of ‘separate but equal,’ striving to bring the issue of racial segregation before the highest court in the land. Their dangerous, long, and grueling march culminated exactly 60 years ago tomorrow (on May 17, 1954) at the United States Supreme Court.
On that extraordinary day, a unanimous Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, declared that separate was inherently unequal, effectively outlawing racial segregation in schools and other public accommodations throughout America. This marked a major victory for the cause of equal justice under law, an inflection point in American history, and a spark that in many ways ignited the modern Civil Rights Movement.
Yet our nation did not automatically translate the words of ‘Brown’ into substantive change. The integration of our schools was a process that was halting, confrontational, and at times even bloody. And for all the progress our nation has seen over the last six decades, this is a process that continues, and a promise that has yet to be fully realized, even today.
While the number of school districts that remain under desegregation court orders has decreased significantly in just the past decade, the Department of Justice 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, the department works 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.
The Departments of Justice and Education are also working together to reform misguided school discipline policies that fuel the ‘school-to-prison pipeline.’ Some of these policies, while well intentioned, have resulted in students of color facing suspensions and expulsions at a rate three times higher than that of their White peers. And the Administration is moving in a variety of ways to dismantle racial barriers and promote inclusion, from America’s classrooms, to our courtrooms, to our voting booths and far beyond.
As we continue these efforts, reflect on this milestone anniversary, and recommit ourselves to the critical work that remains before us, it’s worth remembering that the outcome in Brown v. Board was never inevitable. It was brought about by citizens from all walks of life across the country. For six decades, it has provided resounding proof that (within the framework of our judicial system, and through the power of collective action) progress is possible.
And today it continues to show us that those who are willing to struggle, to march toward justice, to stand up for a principle, or simply to take a seat in a courthouse or a classroom, at a lunch counter or the front of a bus can, and do, change the world for the better.