Brown v. Board of Education 50th Anniversary Commission
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November 13, 2002

Remarks by Co-Chairman of the Commission Ralph F. Boyd, Jr., Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Justice, to the Brown v. Board of Education 50th Anniversary Commission, Howard University School of Law

Good morning. I'm also honored to have the opportunity to serve as Co-Chair of this August Commission, which has so many distinguished members.

I've had the pleasure and privilege of working with several of you on a variety of issues over the course of my sixteen-month tenure as the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. And I certainly look forward to - and it's really a privilege to have the chance to get to know the rest of you (with whom I haven't yet worked) as we embark on our mission to commemorate the Brown decision - a truly seminal event, I think, in our nation's legal, educational and social history.

Bob Driscoll and I - my colleague on this Commission and in the Civil rights Division - had the honor of meeting Cheryl Brown Henderson - for the first time - several months ago. During that meeting we talked about Cheryl's work with the Brown Foundation, and of her vision for this Commission.

[And I hinted then - and I followed up my earlier hints with a warning of sorts yesterday - and that is that I regarded her as the force behind this commission - our spiritual and conceptual leader if you will - and also the face of the Commission to the world. And so I'm just delighted that we're here, and that you're here Cheryl to participate as a colleague, but more than that you're here to help lead us and guide us in our important work] So thank you.

I also want to welcome and give thanks for the involvement and participation of the other members of - and advisors to - this Commission. As some of you may know, I have strong family ties to some of the organizations represented around this table.

My father (AND MY MOTHER both) were very active in the NAACP, and indeed in the years immediately preceding the Brown decision were founding members of the NAACP branch in my hometown of Schenectady, N.Y.

In fact, I often joke when I'm confronted with trivia questions about popular culture - especially involving television - that my ignorance dates back to my early childhood. That while many kids grew up in front of the television, I spent the better part of my youth in NAACP and Schenectady Community Action Program ("SCAP"), and other such meetings.

Don't get me wrong, I wasn't that different from most other children in terms of my interests, but thankfully there just wasn't much "sitting-around- time" given what I'd describe as my parents "thorough emersion program in matters involving community and citizenship."

So that brings me to today, and the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice that I have the profound privilege of leading - with lots of help of course from many very committed and capable people.

The Division enforces a number of federal civil rights statutes - including those prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, gender, immigration status and disability. The Brown decision laid the foundation for all of these statutes. And while most people think of Brown in the context of race issues only, and of America's effort to provide equal opportunity and justice to African-Americans, the decision really was, in fact, a critical component, a trigger point if you will for advancements in virtually every important civil rights area.

For example, women now earn nearly one half of all of the law degrees awarded every year in America. It wasn't that way in 1954. I'm virtually certain that it isn't lost on folks that the leading attorneys in the Brown litigation were men. But what they did, and what the Supreme Court did in response in Brown awakened a nation, and laid the groundwork for women to make tremendous advancements in the most prominent and visible of our professions.

Another example are the civil rights advancements that we've made - and need to continue to make with respect to our brothers and sisters with disabilities. The Disability Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division is actively (and I hope people would say strenuously) involved in advancing the cause of equal opportunity for people with disabilities - that means involvement, and integration, and participation in all meaningful aspects of America life - whether civic, economic, or social. The simple fact is that without Brown, there is no Disability Rights Section in the Civil Rights Division, and perhaps also there is no Rehabilitation Act or Americans with Disabilities Act.

Brown also had profound international consequences as well. The principles and aspirations stated by the Supreme Court in Brown resonated with people across the globe who are, or who were oppressed. I think especially of those people in South Africa who fought valiantly against apartheid, and who continue to strive - as we do here in America - to build a better and fairer society, and more inclusive society.

The work of this Commission is straightforward, which I appreciate since so little of my professional life is straightforward these days! The Commission's goals are essentially three-fold:

· First, to promote awareness around the country that this Commission exists;

· Second, to help coordinate observances of the 50th anniversary; and

· Finally to promote understanding with respect to both the history of the Brown decision, as well as the ongoing impact of Brown v. Board.

One of the challenges of the Commission's work, I think, will be to deal with the very last point - defining for people what the current meaning of Brown is. Everyone around this table will probably answer that somewhat differently. And that's okay. In fact, it's a good thing, I think, that we do.

My single cautionary note, however, is to remind us that this Commission cannot endorse any particular public policy proposals. Our enabling statute neither envisions nor permits it.

Also, as a practical matter, it simply wouldn't be appropriate for us to engage in that enterprise in view of the fact that it would put several Commissioners in untenable situations - for example, we have a sitting federal appeals court judge and a sitting state superior court judge who are our fellow commissioners; we have government employees from the National Park Service and the presidential libraries; and others in government who exercise decision making authority in a wide range of areas related to various public policy proposals or positions.

However, this does not mean - and I don't want at all to be heard to suggest that the Commission should shy away from encouraging people to voice their views about what the public policy implications and ramifications of Brown are going forward.

The statute directs us to sponsor public lectures, and in those settings we should allow - and indeed encourage and facilitate frank dialogue and discussion among and between lecturers, symposium participants, and audiences regarding the on-going impact of the decision. But walking this fine line will be one of the Commission's challenges.

Another challenge for us is to develop a wide audience. I understand that Howard University has tremendous and ambitious plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary, and we will hear about those later today. But we cannot be satisfied until the University of Iowa and the University of Arizona also have ambitious plans focusing attention on Brown.

I understand that the NAACP and NAACP Legal Defense Fund have ambitious plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary, and again we will hear about those later today. But we cannot be satisfied until other civil and human rights organizations also have plans to make Brown front and center in the consciousness of their constituents as well.

This anniversary is a unique opportunity to put civil rights on the radar screen of millions of people - parents, school teachers and children across America.

This is also an opportunity to get people in our country to recognize the profound importance of the institutions that played such a significant role in the Brown litigation. We should try to expose a whole new generation to the critical importance - historically and contemporaneously -- of Howard University, the NAACP, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and so many others.

Again, I look forward to working with all of you.

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Last Modified: 09/16/2003