Thank you, Sharon, for your kind words – and, especially, for the stories that you left out. As my wife just mentioned, I have been afforded some extraordinary opportunities throughout my life – opportunities that would not have been possible without the courage and commitment of families like hers – and like so many of yours.
Every day, I am thankful to those who blazed the path that I have traveled – the generations of men and women whose contributions and sacrifices make it possible for me to stand before you today as our nation’s Attorney General. And while this is an extraordinary privilege, the richest blessing – and the greatest honor – of my life is being Sharon’s husband, and the father of our three wonderful kids. So, I’d appreciate it if you would join me in one more round of applause for my wife.
Thank you for that. And thank you all – especially, Cheryl Brown Henderson, and the Brown Foundation’s staff members and many supporters – for inviting us to join you. I’d also like to thank David Basse and Kelly Hunt – and the members of the Highland Park High School Air Force Junior ROTC – for sharing their talents with us, and helping to make this celebration so special.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t commend the extraordinary work of Pedro Irigonegaray, Bruce Mactavish, and Deborah Dandridge. I also want to recognize the many other state and local leaders among us. In particular, I’d like to welcome Justice Eric Rosen, along with Mayor Bill Bunten, and the members of the City Council who are with us – and who, I understand, postponed a meeting in order to make sure that they could be here. Thank you all for your leadership, and for your participation tonight.
It is an honor to join with each of you – and with all of our distinguished guests – as we commemorate the 57th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision. It is especially meaningful for me to be here in Topeka – in the community where this landmark case took shape, among many of the people who helped to ensure that – after so many promising attempts and small steps forward – our country’s long struggle to end segregation in our schools and in our nation, finally, resulted in historic success.
At the time of this landmark ruling, I was just three years old, growing up in New York City, and still a few years away from starting school. My generation was the first to come of age in a post-Brown America. And although we would face considerable challenges of our own – in whatever part of the United States in which we were raised – we would never know a world in which “separate but equal” was the law of the land.
That was a profound and long-overdue accomplishment in itself – even if other critical changes didn’t happen as quickly. But, in a broader sense, this Supreme Court case was also the spark that ignited the modern Civil Rights movement – giving rise to the key advancements that defined the 1960s, and infusing a new generation of Americans with the energy – and the optimism – necessary to take up the cause of equal opportunity and equal justice.
In the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, people of all ages – and from every corner of our nation – became inspired and emboldened by the courage, the conviction, and the persistence of leaders like Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall and Reverend Oliver Brown – and the nearly 200 plaintiffs from across the country who joined him in the NAACP’s class-action suit.
As that famous verdict was handed down, these and many other Americans who had longed and worked for equality – including many who had given up faith in the promise of justice – were reminded that, here in the United States, large-scale, sweeping, righteous change – if fought for – is not impossible. Here in America, our greatest dreams are not beyond our capabilities; our most cherished hopes are not beyond our reach; and our goals are not beyond our lifetimes.
Like so many of you, I can still remember those days. I can recall the turmoil, and the violence, that characterized the Civil Rights era. I also recall the bravery, and the strong leadership, of public figures like Medgar Evers, Dr. King, the Freedom Riders, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. And most poignantly, I remember, clearly, the “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” that Sharon just described – and how that historic victory became one of my earliest lessons in the power of the law. As I watched two students – including a young woman who would one day become my sister-in-law – take their rightful place at the University of Alabama, I understood – at some very basic level – that the law can be a powerful tool – one that affects, and can improve, people’s lives.
That same lesson was made clear here in Topeka, when this city helped lead the way in bringing about the single greatest Supreme Court decision in our history. It was the basis for the destruction of Jim Crow law and institutionalized discrimination. And, for nearly 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. 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, indeed, change the world.
I’ll say that again, because it bears repeating: Those who are willing to march toward justice can change the world. Make no mistake: here in Topeka, and in the communities across the country that participated in this historic case – that’s exactly what you did in 1954, and what our nation has continued to do in the decades since.
When I think of all that has changed over the past 57 years – when I consider the opportunities that I have had – that my children have today – and that my parents did not, I feel blessed beyond measure.
But like you, I also recognize that significant challenges remain. There are still too many children whose opportunities in life are limited by the circumstances of their births. There are too many neighborhoods that continue to be menaced by gun-, gang-, and drug-fueled violence – and too many communities where young people are more likely to go to prison than to college.
And while so many long-standing divisions have been healed, so many attitudes have shifted, and – in so many critical ways – our entire society has been positively transformed, the struggle that drew the world’s attention to Topeka more than half a century ago goes on.
Even today – in 2011 – the Justice Department is still fighting to make sure that educational opportunities are not denied on the basis of race; that all of our children have an equal opportunity to succeed; and that this landmark ruling continues to be fully implemented in both letter and spirit.
The work of upholding civil rights in – and beyond – our schools is far from over. And so long as discrimination and division continue to keep Americans apart and create obstacles to prosperity, we must continue to stand vigilant – and to speak out – against injustice in all its forms.
We must also find ways to create more opportunities for progress and growth – not only through our court systems and civil rights enforcement efforts, but also through our work to reach out to those who need our help most desperately – especially our children.
As Thurgood Marshall himself once said: “None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody… bent down and helped us pick up our boots.”
That is what we must do – for our neighbors who are in need, for our children who are in harm’s way, and for every person in this country who lives in fear, who has lost hope, and who – without our continued efforts – may never have the chance to unlock their potential or to realize their dreams.
These are the people we are called to serve – and these are the critical efforts we must continue. By lifting up those who need us and tearing down the walls that divide us, we can honor the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education. And we can extend the progress it sparked and inspired.
Tonight, on this historic anniversary, I want all of you to know that today’s Justice Department is as committed to this work as we have ever been. And, as I look out around this crowd – at leaders who helped to improve our nation, at partners who strengthen the mission of the Justice Department each day, and at young people who will lead America forward – I can’t help but feel optimistic about the progress we’ll be able to celebrate at anniversary banquets like this one in the years to come.
The greatness of the United States of America has always been defined by its ability to overcome those societal practices that have deviated from our founding principles. So – like those most patriotic Americans did some six decades past – let us seize the moment before us. Let us make our nation even greater than it is today. Let us work, just as those we honor tonight once did, in common cause. Let us come together once again – with open hearts and outstretched hands – to keep faith in the ideals that have made our nation not only powerful but good. And let us renew our commitment to the ongoing struggle for opportunity and justice for all.
Thank you for your partnership in this work. And thank you for reminding me – as we look back on the defining moment that was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas – that, in this nation, there truly is no limit to what we can accomplish together.