It's been 60 years since the iconic U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared racial segregation in schools unconstitutional. And yet as celebrations and commemorative pats on the back all cheer the successes, an audience gathered at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., was being reminded that the overall war has not been won.
Speaking at an NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund commemorative luncheon on Friday, Attorney General Eric Holder spoke highly of the court ruling that occurred when he was only 3 years old, but warned that while the law did offer certain protections, it did little to erase actual feelings of prejudice or discrimination.
"[Brown] did not instantaneously—or painlessly—tear down the walls that divided so much of the nation. But it did unlock the gates," Holder said to a standing-room-only crowd. " … It continues to guide LDF's work, and the Justice Department's civil rights enforcement efforts, as we work to end the divisions and disparities that persist even today," Holder said, before citing the controversial Schuette v. Coalition ruling.
"After all, as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said recently—in an insightful dissent in the Michigan college admissions case—we must not 'wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society.… The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race.' And, I would add, to act, to eradicate the existence of still too persistent inequalities."
Holder also pledged that while he was still holding his office, he would do everything within the Justice Department's power to ensure that schools today, in 2014, that have still not enforced desegregation would do so.
"We're partnering with the Department of Education to reform school-discipline policies that fuel the school-to-prison pipeline—and that have resulted in students of color facing suspensions and expulsions at a rate three times higher than that of their white peers," he said. "And we are moving in a variety of ways to dismantle racial barriers and promote inclusion, from America's classrooms, to our boardrooms, to our voting booths—and far beyond."
Former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder and Masschusetts Gov. Deval Patrick were also at the event, holding an open conversation moderated by journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault.
Cecilia Marshall, wife of the late iconic Supreme Court justice and LDF founder and director-counsel Thurgood Marshall, received the Spirit of Justice Award at the event for her own trailblazing work for equality and justice.
Time has latched onto her bones, curving her inward a bit, but Marshall's tiny frame can barely contain her feisty spirit. In her brief speech, she remembered the passage of the law and also recalled how she told her colleagues in the middle of celebrations, "I don't know about you fools, but I am going back to work because our work has just begun." Much of that sentiment she echoed on Friday.
"Sixty years later here we are … we're still fighting bigotry in one form or another," she lamented in a soft voice that somehow still rang with determined strength.
She also quoted part of her husband's speech during his acceptance of the Liberty Medal, reiterating, "The battle for racial and economic justice is not yet won. Indeed, it has barely begun. The legal system can force open doors and sometimes even knocks down walls. But it cannot build bridges, that job belongs to you and me. The country can't do it. Afro and white, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, our fates are bound together. We can run from each other, but we cannot escape each other. We will only obtain freedom if we learn to appreciate what is different and muster the courage to discover what is fundamentally the same."
Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.