Prepared Remarks of Attorney General Ashcroft
50th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education
DOJ Great Hall - Washington, D.C.
May 13, 2004 - 2:00 pm
Thank you, Alex, for that introduction.
Congressman [Artur] Davis; distinguished guests; ladies and gentlemen; friends and family -- thank you for coming to the Great Hall for this important opportunity to celebrate a great day for justice: May 17, 1954.
Today, we commemorate the momentous decision of Brown v. Board of Education.
Fifty years ago, the United States Supreme Court stood up courageously for every child in America by upholding the principle of equal protection under the law.
In its unanimous decision, the Court did more than begin to open up educational opportunities for African Americans. Brown v. Board of Education forever changed the landscape and destiny of America--recommitting our nation to a common vision of hope and equality for every person.
When I first entered public school, America's schools were still segregated. I saw the beginnings of the great transformation and integration brought by the Supreme Court's decision.
But first, I was witness to the terrible cost of segregation--for whites and for African Americans. Booker T. Washington once observed, quote, "One man cannot hold another man down in the ditch without remaining down in the ditch with him." Our segregated schools held back America because America was holding down the aspirations and talents of African Americans and other minorities.
Segregated schools habituated white students and African-American students to accept a separate and unequal society. Segregated schools silently primed the youngest minds to think separately because we learned and lived separately.
Before Brown v. Board of Education, America was a society where both African-American and white students had few opportunities to learn together or to learn from one another. That lack of diversity robbed African Americans, robbed whites, and robbed the nation.
As the Court declared, segregation has a, quote, "detrimental effect" on African-American children: "The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of [African Americans]."
For white students, segregated schools sent the message that only white teachers had something to teach them, that whites were the only source for instruction and authority.
Thanks to Brown v. Board of Education, our public schools became the initiating institutions of integration for our entire society.
I am grateful my children have grown up in a more just society. Not only did my children grow up with African American classmates in integrated schools, they had the opportunity to learn from African-American teachers who educated their minds and enriched their lives and experiences. African-American teachers modeled leadership and taught them a respect for diversity and an appreciation for new ideas that my children will carry with them throughout their lives.
We have come far over the past 50 years. Jim Crow is dead. Segregation by law is long gone. But we have yet more to do.
Our schools are more integrated, but America continues to struggle to give every child the education he or she deserves.
President Bush's vision for education reflects the finest hopes and highest aspirations of the American people for every child. As a nation, we believe in the fundamental values embodied by Brown v. Board of Education: equality under the law, equality of opportunity, and the importance of education.
Fifty years ago, the Court stated: "[E]ducation is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments . It is the very foundation of good citizenship . In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms."
Those words are more important than ever. In this new century, we believe in the moral imperative to make education "available on equal terms."
Frederick Douglass said, quote, "Education . means emancipation. It means light and liberty. It means the lifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light by which men can only be made free."
Brown v. Board of Education did not just improve educational opportunities for millions of African-American students. While many of us are aware of the fact of African-American segregation, we must remember that some Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans also suffered from segregation.
Brown v. Board of Education elevated public education and returned it to its role as emancipator. Brown v. Board of Education, in that respect, freed America.
Today, we call on our schools to play a critical role in supporting freedom by preparing students for the responsibilities of democratic rule as well as providing for themselves and their families.
Integration has become the tide that lifts all boats--expanding opportunities, encouraging new ideas, and creating new possibilities--by uniting us as a people.
Few societies have aspired to higher ideals than America. In the history of the world, no nation has sought more diligently to weld together diverse populations into a single nation with an unalloyed love of liberty.
Our dedication to freedom and our respect for tolerance and diversity have made us a beacon to the world. It is no coincidence that we are a strong and richly blessed nation. A great source of our strength is our commitment to draw the finest qualities from so many peoples and experiences.
A. Philip Randolph, who was so instrumental in organizing the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, once said, quote, "We must have faith that this society, divided by ethnicity and class, and subject to profound social pressures, can one day become a nation of equals, and banish ethnic prejudices to the limbo of oblivion from which it shall never emerge."
Here at the Department of Justice, we have been given the challenge, the duty, the opportunity, and the obligation to work daily to build that "nation of equals." Our lives are dedicated to banishing illegal discrimination into the "limbo of oblivion."
I recently had the opportunity to speak to the President about the great work of our Civil Rights Division. Your accomplishments are impressive:
I am deeply grateful to Assistant Attorney General Alex Acosta and to the entire Division. You have ensured that Brown v. Board of Education is a beginning and not an end.
We still have far to go, but we must also remember that we have come a distance. Most important, as Americans, we must all reflect on A. Philip Randolph's wise words that, quote, "[F]reedom is never a final fact.."
Freedom is never a final fact. The story of America is the story of unfolding success.
The American story is a drama of daily striving, shining progress, occasional setbacks, and a determination never to cease struggling to build an America that lives up fully to the visionary belief that every life is precious because every life is created equal.