Prepared Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft
Oxford, Mississippi Symposium
Tuesday, July 15, 2003
(Note: The Attorney General often deviates from prepared remarks.)
Thank you, Ben, and thank you for your leadership and for your service.
Welcome to the Department of Justice. Today you have been discussing a seminal moment in our nations history involving the role of the United States Marshals Service during the Civil Rights Movement.
Over 24 hours between September 30th and October 1st, 1962, 127 U.S. Marshals stood on the grounds of the University of Mississippi to protect the rights of a man and a nation.
More than 40 years ago, James Meredith -- grandson of a slave, a man who served his country in the Air Force wanted to complete his education at the University of Mississippi. He chose to fulfill his destiny, to push his potential past hatred and bigotry. It took a federal court order and the strength of the United States Marshals to help make it a reality.
For President John F. Kennedy, the issue at the time was clear and indisputable. He said, We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and it is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities; whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated."
On September 30th, 1962, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered the Marshals to guard the University of Mississippis Lyceum building, so that the next day, Mr. Meredith could be escorted inside and enroll for classes.
Later that evening, the Marshals were confronted by an angry and violent mob that numbered in the thousands. Guns, clubs, bricks, bottles, even vials of acid from the schools chemistry lab, were used against the men standing guard.
Reflecting on the events that unfolded during that night, Attorney General Robert Kennedy wrote the next morning, It was one of the worst nights I have ever spent. But he described with pride the actions of the men he sent to uphold justice. The Marshals, he wrote, were, standing up there with courage, and ability, and great bravery.
There is no higher calling in government than ensuring that the law applies fairly and equally to all Americans. For the men and women who serve in the Justice Department, equal justice before the law is our mission. It is our sacred trust.
One hundred and forty years after the end of slavery, 39 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we continue to fulfill the legacy to which the U.S. Marshals contributed on that muggy night more than 40 years ago. We strive to live up to the ideals of freedom and equality for which the Marshals sacrificed.
President Bush has spoken of these ideals. He said, The grandest of these ideals is an unfolding American promise: that everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance, that no insignificant person was ever born. Americans are called to enact this promise in our lives and in our laws.
Our Founding Fathers believed that the role of government was to preserve the rule of law and protect the freedom of citizens to develop their God-given talents. To the Founders, liberty was the greatest expression of our humanity and a blessing from God to be defended with courage and sacrifice.
At the University of Mississippi, the Marshals defended one mans aspirations and the promise of our Founding. Both James Meredith and the U.S. Marshals exhibited the kind of courage that sustains freedom.
For nine hours, those 127 United States Marshals stood shoulder to shoulder, never wavering. When the United States Army arrived in the early morning hours to help disperse the rioters, 79 Marshals had been injured.
Some might be proud of just having survived such a night of violence and bloodshed. Marshals such as William Banta, though, recall with pride that even as the rioters used a bull dozer and a fire truck to attack them, even as fellow officers were struck down by bullets and bricks, the Marshals did their jobs. They stood in place. They never fired. They held the line, and never allowed a rioter to break through.
On October 1, 1962, James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi, and a year later was the first African-American to graduate from the University of Mississippi.
In explaining his reasons for enrolling at the University of Mississippi, Mr. Meredith has said, I asked myself the question, Why should it be someone else? If people keep placing the responsibility with someone else, nothing will ever be accomplished.
More than 40 years ago, James Meredith took responsibility. He chose to act, to fulfill a destiny that was his rightfully. The United States Marshals Service took responsibility and defended justice, while protecting the liberties of all Americans.
The result is that today America is stronger, because James Meredith and the U.S. Marshals were brave.
Thank you for your service and your sacrifice. God bless you and God bless the United States of America.