Skip to main content

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Delivers Remarks Celebrating 70th Anniversary of Brown v. Board Decision


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as Delivered

Good afternoon. Thank you, Shaheena, for that generous introduction. And for your leadership.

I am honored to welcome everyone to the Justice Department’s Great Hall. Secretary Cardona, thank you very much for being here today on behalf of the Department of Education.

Seventy years ago this Friday, on May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court unanimously concluded “that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate, but equal’ has no place.”

On that day, the Court ruled in favor of the more than 200 people from across the country who had joined as plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education.

Those plaintiffs included parents like Mrs. Lena Carper, who believed her 10-year-old daughter deserved better than to have to walk and wait in the wind, rain, snow, and mud to catch the bus that would take her to the school designated for Black children.

And they included students like 16-year-old Barbara Johns, who led hundreds of fellow students in a strike to protest the terrible conditions at her segregated school.

Barbara received deaths threats, her family home was burned to the ground, and a cross was burned on the grounds of her high school by white supremacists.

For those students, and for our country, the decision in Brown represented a promise. A promise that this would be a nation where students of all races and backgrounds could learn together in the same classrooms and the same schools. And a promise that our schools would not only teach students about the principle that underlies our democracy — that we are all equal under the law — but that they would embody it.

But in the wake of the Court’s decision, it became clear that the words of the Justices would not be sufficient to ensure the integration of our nation’s schools.

As members of Congress urged states to “resist forced integration by any lawful means,” and governors barred schoolhouse doors, the task primarily fell to Black children — some no more than five or six years old, whose only wish was to go to school.

Among those students were three six-year-old girls — who, together Ruby Bridges, would later become part of a group known as the New Orleans Four. In November of 196[0], three members of the New Orleans Four integrated the previously all-white McDonogh 19 Elementary School in New Orleans.

Each day, U.S. Marshals escorted them to school. On their way, they had to face down the mobs of white residents who lined the streets to heckle, threaten, and harass them.

On the girls’ very first day of school, parents of their white classmates removed their children from the school, rather than have them sit in the same classrooms with their Black peers.

And throughout their childhood, they faced years of abuse and harassment from students and teachers in the integrated schools they attended — other students hit them, spit on them, and ripped their clothes.

Those girls experienced things that no child should ever have to go through.

As children, they demonstrated unimaginable bravery.

And they have continued to do so as adults. Today, we are deeply honored that three of the members of the New Orleans Four — Leona Tate, Gail Etienne, and Tessie Prevost — are participating in this program.

Ms. Tate and Ms. Etienne are here today with us in person. “Thank you” does not feel like adequate recognition. But I want you to know that the Justice Department, and our country, are deeply grateful to each of you for your courage and your continued advocacy.

The Court’s decision in Brown made clear that the responsibility of this Department to uphold the rule of law, and to adhere to the Constitution, means protecting the right of every child, regardless of the color of their skin, to access equal educational opportunities.

As we have worked to fulfill that charge for the past 70 years, the Justice Department’s lawyers and law enforcement agents have been proud to stand alongside brave students like the New Orleans Four and their families.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Marshals Service brought Ms. Tate, Ms. Etienne, and Ms. Provost together with one of the Deputy Marshals who was assigned to their protective detail — former Deputy Marshal Herschel Garner. In 1960, just six months into his time as Deputy Marshal, Mr. Garner was part of the U.S. Marshals detail that escorted them to their new school.

Just two years later, Mr. Garner served as one of the 127 U.S. Deputy Marshals who protected James Meredith as he sought to enroll as the first Black student at the University of Mississippi.

This Department is indebted to Deputy Marshal Garner and to the many others from the U.S. Marshals Service who risked their lives to enforce the protections guaranteed by Brown.

We are also indebted to Franz Marshall, who for over five decades has served in the Civil Rights Division and helped lead the Justice Department’s work to fulfill the promise of Brown. Over the course of his career, Franz has represented the United States in hundreds of desegregation cases. He has shaped the legal landscape, cleared paths to a better life for countless students, and given voice to children and parents in communities throughout the United States.

No lawyer at the Justice Department has done more to open the schoolhouse doors to all children, and to fulfill the promise of Brown, than Franz Marshall.

Franz — it is an honor to work alongside you. We are deeply grateful for your leadership and your continued service.

Franz’s career at the Justice Department, and the participation of Ms. Tate, Ms. Etienne, and Ms. Prevost in today’s program, reminds us that the work of Brown is not just part of our history. It is ongoing. It is urgent.

This work is urgent for the nearly 900,000 students in 1,500 schools across more than 130 school districts where the Civil Rights Division is to this day monitoring the implementation of desegregation orders.

This work is urgent in Madison County, Alabama, where the Justice Department, joined by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, recently secured a new consent order in a longstanding desegregation case. The order addressed findings that Black students in the district faced unnecessary barriers to participating in gifted and advanced programs; that they were subjected to racially disparate discipline; and that the district’s recruitment and hiring process left several schools without a single Black faculty member.

And this work is urgent in school districts around the country, from Kentucky, to Utah, to Vermont, where the Department has entered multiple agreements to address the failures of school districts to appropriately respond to serious incidents of student-on-student, race-based harassment. Those agreements have required districts to reform their policies and practices, train their personnel, and take other critical steps to ensure their schools are safe and welcoming educational environments for all students.

These are just a few examples of the Justice Department’s work in recent years. But we know that more needs to be done.

I am grateful to Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke for her leadership and for the extraordinary efforts of the Civil Rights Division to spearhead this work on behalf of the Department of Justice.

And all of us at the Justice Department are grateful to our colleagues at the Department of Education for their partnership.

I also want to take a moment to express my gratitude to the students and young advocates who are in the audience today, and to the other young people in attendance. You are our partners — we do this work for you, but we could not do it without you.

Today, we join together to celebrate and remember the Court’s momentous decision in Brown, and the courage of so many — including people in this room — who risked their own safety to put that decision into action.

We also know — we also join together knowing that fulfilling Brown’s mandate — a nation where education is “a right which must be made available to all on equal terms” — requires our continued work.

That is work this Justice Department is doing, and is proud to do, alongside all of you.

Thank you all for being here today, and thank you for your continued partnership.

Civil Rights
Updated May 14, 2024