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"Brown: One Constitution.....One People.....One Nation"

Stephen Breyer
Associate Justice
Supreme Court of the United States

50th Anniversary of
Brown v. Board of Education

Topeka, Kansas
May 17, 2004

Fifty years ago today the Supreme Court of the United States decided Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Here is the question that case presented: "Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other 'tangible' factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities?" The Court answered this question unanimously: "We believe that it does."

As a member of the Supreme Court, I am here today to represent that Court, not nine individual Justices, but the institution itself - an institution as old as the Republic, charged with the responsibility of interpreting the Constitution of the United States.

May 17, 1954, was a great day - many would say the greatest day - in the history of that institution.

Before May 17, 1954, the Court read the Constitution's words "equal protection of the laws," as if they protected only the members of the majority race. After May 17, 1954, it read those words as the post-Civil War Framers meant them, as offering the same protection to citizens of every race.

Before May 17, 1954, the words "equal justice under law," chiseled in stone above the Supreme Court's door, rang with irony. After May 17, 1954, those words began to mean what they say.

Before May 17, 1954, the Court was not a Court for all the people. After May 17, 1954, the Court began to enforce a law that strives to treat every citizen with equal respect.

A great lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, who later became a member of the Supreme Court, represented the schoolchildren in Brown. He argued that separating our children by race violates the Constitution's promise of equal protection. The Court agreed, embracing Marshall's argument with a simple affirmation: "We believe that it does."

And what great effect those few words have had.

With those words, the Court told the Nation clearly and unequivocally that segregation based on race is wrong and that the law cannot tolerate that wrong.

With those words, the Court said to parents from Topeka, from South Carolina, from Virginia, from Delaware, from the District of Columbia, and to parents everywhere, that "education is perhaps the most important function of State and local governments," thereby setting the Nation on a path towards a goal of quality education for all children, a goal not yet achieved.

With those words, the Court forced the Nation to ask itself whether it believed in a rule of law - a rule of law that the Nation's history had sometimes denied, a rule of law that President Eisenhower enforced in 1957 when he sent federal paratroopers to Arkansas to take those black schoolchildren by the hand and walk them safely through that white schoolhouse door. We now accept that rule of law as part of our heritage, thanks to Brown and to its aftermath. But too often we take that rule of law for granted, without recollecting the conditions of fifty years ago and without adequate appreciation for those whose struggles made it possible.

Above all, Brown's simple affirmation helped us all to understand that our Constitution was meant to create not a democracy just written on paper but a democracy that works in practice and which cannot work in practice unless every citizen understands that the Constitution belongs, not to the "majority," or to the lawyers, or to the judges, but to each of us. Brown helped us to understand that the Constitution is "ours," whoever we may be.

In this way that simple affirmation expresses the belief that many millions of Americans of different races, different religions and different points of view can come together each day to create one single nation. That is the hope that Thurgood Marshall expressed in his argument to the Court in Brown. It is a hope about the Constitution - one Constitution; a hope about the people - one people; a hope about the Nation - one Nation. That is the message that the Court sent forth in Brown on that day fifty years ago, a day when the Court responded to a call for justice, a day, which for that reason we rightly celebrate, here, today, in Topeka, Kansas.



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