Thank you, Dean Sullivan-Gonzalez, for those kind words – and thank you all for welcoming me to this beautiful campus. It’s a pleasure to be in Oxford tonight – and a privilege to join so many students, educators, friends, and community leaders in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the integration of the University of Mississippi – and rededicating ourselves to the continuing struggle for equal rights, equal opportunity, and equal justice.
I’d particularly like to thank Chancellor Jones and Professor Ross for their outstanding work in organizing this year’s commemorative events, and for bringing so many current – and future – leaders together for today’s discussion. I’m glad that Attorney General Hood, Mayor Patterson, and so many other state and local officials are here. And I’d like to extend a special welcome to the group of United States Attorneys who have joined us – including Felicia Adams, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Mississippi. Not only are these leaders spearheading critical federal investigations and prosecutions, they are also leaders of our civil rights enforcement efforts. And I’m so glad that they could be with us this evening.
It’s especially fitting that we have come together just a few short blocks from the Lyceum – where bullet holes from the riots of half a century ago can still be seen, and where Civil War soldiers were treated for their fresh battle wounds another century earlier. For more than 160 years, this campus and its students have felt the impact – and, too often, borne the scars – of some of the most turbulent moments in our nation’s history. This community has witnessed – and helped to shape – events of great consequence across, and far beyond, the State of Mississippi. And through it all, this remarkable institution has consistently served as a meeting ground for critical debates; a proving ground for innovative solutions; and a training ground for generations of leaders who have shaped America’s course – and who will surely help to write the next chapter of our nation’s history.
Tonight, we gather to honor just a few of these brave individuals – and to reflect upon the extraordinary events of September 1962, when Ole Miss became the focal point of a transformative national struggle – and officially opened its doors to people of color.
This was a time of great uncertainty, near the height of the Civil Rights Movement, when racial discrimination was institutionalized and segregation was the law of the land. It was a period of difficulty and danger for those who stood up – and spoke out – against an unjust status quo. But it was also a moment of hope, and significant promise, for legions of activists who kept faith in America’s ability to live up to its founding ideals – and who drew strength from the power of our legal system to serve as a strong, deft instrument of positive change.
At its core, this is the optimism exemplified in the moment we remember this evening, when a brave young student – supported by the United States Supreme Court, and backed by the full enforcement authority of our nation’s Department of Justice – arrived on this campus to complete a formality that, for an African American at the time, was unprecedented: to register for classes.
This young man was no stranger to the fight to end segregation. After graduating from high school, James Meredith had served his country in the newly-integrated Air Force. Later, while studying at the historically black Jackson State University, he had met with the famous civil rights activist, and local NAACP Field Secretary, Medgar Evers, to discuss his college plans. James Meredith had seen the Freedom Rides unfold. He’d felt the impact of the Civil Rights Movement on his community. And he had dared to hope for, and to dream of, opportunities that – for most of his life – had seemed out of reach.
In many ways, his journey to the University of Mississippi began in early 1961 – when, from here in his home state, he watched a charismatic young President take the Oath of Office. On that January morning, President John F. Kennedy invoked the words of Scripture to demand that leaders around the world “undo the heavy burdens . . . (and) let the oppressed go free.” The very next day, James Meredith wrote to Ole Miss to ask for a college application. When he was turned away, he contacted the Justice Department’s new Civil Rights Division. He urged the Kennedy Administration to take action. And a few months later, with the support of top leaders from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund – including Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley – he took his grievance to the courts, arguing that Ole Miss had rejected him solely because of his race.
After a legal battle that dragged on for more than a year, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals – in a ruling handed down, somewhat fittingly, by a great jurist named Wisdom – finally held in James Meredith’s favor. Not long after, the U.S. Supreme Court – at the urging of the Justice Department – ruled that Judge Wisdom’s mandate must be enforced. And in the late summer of 1962, federal authorities made plans to integrate the University of Mississippi.
Now, as I look around at this crowd of bright, young faces, I realize that I’m one of the few people here who was alive in the summer of 1962. And I can assure you that those of us who lived through those turbulent days will never forget the dramatic confrontation that followed, as Mississippi’s pro-segregation governor, Ross Barnett, stood firm. The national news carried images that remain vivid – of passionate protests, fiery speeches, and three unsuccessful attempts to allow James Meredith to enroll. In the face of such difficult odds, it might have been tempting – and it certainly would have been understandable – to give up. But for James Meredith, for his NAACP attorneys – and for national leaders like my predecessor, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who was personally directing Justice Department efforts to enforce the court order – this was never a question of doing what was easy. It was a matter of doing what was right.
The need to carry out the Supreme Court’s decision – and to affirm that the United States is a nation governed by laws, unbound by the politics of convenience or the pressures of the day – was a powerful imperative. And that’s why, on the evening of September 30th, James Meredith was accompanied to this campus by well over 300 Deputy and Special Deputy United States Marshals, a number of Mississippi State Troopers, and a contingent of senior Justice Department leaders – including the legendary civil rights lawyer John Doar, who led the Civil Rights Division – and who, just this year, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Unfortunately, this group of a few hundred was met by a crowd of thousands of protestors – many of whom were not Ole Miss students or even Oxford residents. And we all know what happened next. Violence broke out. Angry rioters nearly overwhelmed the Marshals who had been tasked with keeping the peace. Then, just as President Kennedy began a live address to the nation to discuss this momentous step forward in Mississippi – and called his fellow Americans to remember that the “law is the eternal safeguard of liberty” – the situation on this campus quickly spiraled out of control.
The pro-segregation demonstrators clashed violently with police and federal marshals. And by the time the crowd dispersed, the smoke and tear gas cleared, and law enforcement officials had regained control, hundreds of protesters – and more than 160 U.S. Marshals – had been injured. More than 200 people had been arrested. And two innocent people – a journalist and a bystander – lay dead.
The next day, the President of the United States was forced to deploy federal troops on American soil to keep the peace. And that morning – October 1st – James Meredith, with Assistant Attorney General John Doar and a squad of U.S. Marshals by his side, walked into the Lyceum and officially enrolled as an Ole Miss student.
There’s no question that this University’s integration marked a significant moment, and a tangible step forward, in the long march toward civil rights for all. It was a triumph for the rule of law, for those who’d long been denied the access and opportunities they deserved, and for countless unsung heroes who – throughout history – braved bigotry, discrimination, and violence to bring our nation to that point.
Yet, in the short term, the events that took place here half a century ago did not immediately alter the reality, and limitations, faced by millions of Americans every day. After all, when James Meredith took his rightful place on this campus, no walls came down. No laws were repealed, or sweeping societal changes put in place. Yes – in one extraordinary case – as a result of the sacrifice and bravery of hundreds, justice was done. Thanks to the kindness of a history professor named James Silver – who had the courage to speak out against what he saw as a “closed society,” and the compassion to serve as James Meredith’s mentor and friend – we were reminded of the important difference that a single person can make. Thanks to bold leaders like this University’s former Law School Dean – Joshua Morse III, who sadly passed away earlier this month – in the years after James Meredith’s admission, black student enrollment increased, and career paths into the law and other professions slowly began to open up.
But in too many other places, discrimination persisted just as it had before. And – in Mississippi and throughout the country – segregation was far from the only obstacle that needed to be overcome.
In workplaces, neighborhoods, and voting booths across America, racism and systematic disenfranchisement continued unabated. In too many cities and towns, bigotry continued to go unchallenged. And less than a year later – at the University of Alabama – another governor, George Wallace, would stand in a schoolhouse door to defend segregation. Once again, federal authorities – including Attorney General Kennedy – would bring their enforcement resources to bear. Two brave students – a young man named James Hood, and a young woman named Vivian Malone, who I’m proud to say would later become my sister-in-law – would step past that governor to integrate another great Southern university. And, as I recently learned – in a poignant letter that’s now housed here in the Ole Miss archives – James Meredith would reach out to Vivian – as a peer, and as one of the few people in America who understood what she must have been going through – to offer his personal support and encouragement.
In this context – although the importance of what took place here 50 years ago can hardly be overstated – its immediate impact is difficult to measure. That’s why, in the end, I believe these events mark not exactly a turning point in our history – but an inflection point: a remarkable moment when a determined group of passionate, patriotic Americans – driven by a hunger for equality, an abiding faith in the promise of our justice system, and a steadfast belief in the power of America’s founding ideals – came together to take hold of what Dr. King liked to call “the arc of the moral universe” – and bent it, as he might say, just a little further toward justice.
In themselves – on their own – such events may not transform the shape of our society – at least not overnight. But it is in these extraordinary moments that our nation’s character is revealed – and our future determined.
After all, stretching out before James Meredith and his allies – on that morning half a century ago – was a future that would hold much more than the chance to earn a college degree. Ahead lay more marches and sit-ins, boycotts and protests, and the Mississippi Freedom Summer that built the strength of a national movement and paved the way for critical policy changes and reforms. Ahead lay Dr. King’s vision of the Mountaintop, and the realization of parts of the dream that so many would never live to see. Ahead lay years of struggle, immeasurable loss, and tremendous sorrow.
But ahead, too, lay the promise of a brighter dawn; the fulfillment of the aspirations set forth in our country’s founding documents; and so many remarkable, once-unimaginable steps that our nation has since taken in its ongoing journey – toward equal rights and equal opportunity – along a path that still stretches beyond the horizon.
Tonight, the preservation of this progress – and the continuation of this critical work – constitutes a charge that has been entrusted to each of us, and a promise that tomorrow’s leaders must strive to fulfill. It’s also the driving force that animates my efforts – and those of my colleagues at every level of our nation’s Justice Department – to strive for equal justice under law, and to be both rigorous and fair in our enforcement of the essential civil rights protections that so many have fought, and even died, to secure.
Today, this work is among the Department’s top priorities. And I’m proud to report that, in the past three years, we’ve taken significant – and, in many cases, historic – steps forward.
Over the past three years, the Department’s Civil Rights Division –operating under the leadership of Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez, who is here with us tonight – has been working closely with United States Attorneys across the country to file more criminal civil rights cases than ever before, including record numbers of police misconduct, hate crimes, and human trafficking cases. We’ve opened multiple cases – in jurisdictions across the country, including here in Mississippi – to combat continuing racial segregation in our schools. And we’ve taken action to eliminate discriminatory practices in our housing and lending markets, where we recently achieved the largest residential fair lending settlement in American history.
We’ve increased efforts to prosecute hate crimes – and to vigorously enforce the landmark Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was enacted in 2009. In March, under this new law, we obtained a conviction against three men from Brandon, Mississippi, who targeted and brutally murdered an African-American man because of his race. And we’ve moved aggressively to enforce and to defend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – a signature achievement of the Civil Rights Movement, a safeguard against those who would erode the ability of certain populations to participate in the work of self-governance, and a powerful tool for preventing discrimination and disenfranchisement in our elections.
Now, I believe we can all be proud of the track record that’s been established – and the results we’ve obtained – over the last few years. But I also recognize that the Justice Department cannot do it all – and that, as the history we commemorate this week proves, we’ve never been able to do it alone.
So this evening – as we observe this milestone, and honor the contributions of those who made it possible – let us also pledge our own commitment to continuing the work that remains unfinished. No matter which field of study you’ve chosen to pursue, each of you will soon leave this campus armed with the power of an Ole Miss education. As a result, in addition to your abilities, you’ll also have special responsibilities – to put your energy and skills to work for the common good. To challenge one another – and our nation – to aim higher; to become better; and to carry forward the fundamental ideals upon which this country was founded – ideals through which a closed society was opened – and a University forever changed – and in which will always live our ongoing pursuit of a more perfect Union.
This is your solemn obligation. This is your breathtaking opportunity.
As you accept and seize it – and as you move forward in your lives, in your careers, and in the difficult and sometimes dangerous work of building a brighter future – know that I am counting on each one of you. I am confident in your ability to lead, your capacity to give, and your willingness to serve. And – especially on this night of remembrance – as we reflect on our past, and as I look out over this crowd of future leaders, I cannot help but feel optimistic about the country – and the world – that each of you will imagine, that each of you will plan for, and that each of you will surely help to create.