Duke University MLK Keynote Address
January 14, 2018 in Duke Chapel
Delivered by Sherrilyn A. Ifill
Thank you so much. I was just actually enjoying the program, I didn’t want to get up to speak, I’ve been listening to these wonderful remarks and these wonderful presentations, so good afternoon to all of you, and I am just delighted to be here with you to commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. I want to begin by just thanking so many people who have made is possible for me to be here today. First and foremost, Dr. Benjamin Reese, your Vice-President for Institutional Equity who extended the invitation to me to come today. I also want to thank Sharon Caple, the Program Coordinator who really provided all the assistance we needed to organize my stay here.
I want to greet Mayor Schewel and thank him for that really extraordinary speech and set of remarks. President Price, who hasn’t been here long, but he has made a difference. I want to thank him for his leadership and for his warm welcome. All of the student leaders Melony and Michael who spoke and who represent our future and whose clarity should convict us to do better and all of the performers today who inspired us the dancers and the drummers and the musicians who just performed and who lifted our hearts. I also want to thank Rabbi Friedman and really want to thank Reverend Powery for his remarks and for his extraordinary invocation which really set the mood. You don’t know this Reverend Powery but my longtime pastor and friend Reverend Doctor Anne Lightner Fuller knows that I speak all over the country and I do it so much that I am quite comfortable speaking publicly, except when I stand in somebody’s pulpit and then I get nervous. So I want to thank you for allowing me to stand at the sacred desk, I take it very seriously what it means to be in a house of faith and speak to people about the issues to which I have devoted my life. So yes, I am grateful to be here.
I have to tell you, I look forward to this weekend every year because for me it really sets and frames the beginning of my year. It compels me to pause, despite all the craziness going on and stop and honor the work of a great American. Every year in the days before King Day, I spend time listening to his speeches, I have a nice box set of CDs’. Reading about the challenges he faced, the difficulty of his work. Every year I learn something new, something that provides fuel and food for my own work and that encourages me to keep fighting for justice and equality and peace.
But even the day itself – the fact there is such a thing as a Martin Luther King Day – and a weekend when cities and universities, and elected officials and community groups and churches and synagogues and mosques all over the country pause to commemorate the life of Dr. King and the work of civil rights, that is its own extraordinary accomplishment.
The activism and tenacity of those who fought for the holiday is itself a testament to the power of grass roots activism and the importance of mobilizing – not just for elections and candidates – but also to demand the acknowledgement of our history and of our greatest heroes.
As Dr. Reese said, I lead the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which for those of you who don’t know is a separate organization from the NAACP. We were once the same organization, we split in 1957. Our organization was founded in 1940 by Thurgood Marshall and led by him for many years. It’s the organization that began a course of strategic work aimed at using the law and the courts to end American apartheid and to achieve racial justice and equality for African Americans.
It matters that LDF was an organization created by Black lawyers initially, our staff is multi-racial, but it matters that in 1940 black lawyers created this organization. Its very existence in fact, at that time was a statement about the power of Black intellectuals and professionalism. The standard we have maintained over the course of seventy-eight years is a unique one. It’s very difficult to be hired, I can tell you as an LDF lawyer, because as I always say LDF lawyers have to be excellent writers and meticulous researchers and brilliant litigators. But that’s the easy part. LDF lawyers also have to be as comfortable, as eloquent and persuasive in a community meeting in a church basement, as we are in the well of the United States Supreme Court. And there are not many lawyers for whom that is true.
So I’m privileged to lead a staff of extraordinary lawyers, organizers, researchers and support staff dedicated to the fight for racial justice and equality.
I myself was a young LDF lawyer from 1988-1993. The Director Counsel who hired me and under whom I served was LDF’s third Director-Counsel, and North Carolina’s own, Julius Chambers, a man of such extraordinary courage, brilliance and dedication it’s hard to think of a parallel. Mr. Chambers created the first integrated law firm in the south, then Ferguson, Chambers, Stein and now Ferguson, Sumter. The firm worked with LDF on literally scores of cases over the years. Mr. Chambers himself litigated over seventy desegregation cases against school districts in the state of North Carolina. During the time that he litigated the landmark desegregation case Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg  school district both his home and his office were firebombed. When he was asked, his reaction to the firebombing, Julius in his very Julius way, a man of few words, said, “you just keep fighting.”
He later went on to serve as the Chancellor at North Carolina Central University and then created the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina Law School – a center that has unfortunately been under attack by the board of regents for the past two years and that Center is now headed by LDF’s fifth Director-Counsel, my friend Ted Shaw, a brilliant civil rights lawyer and leader in his own right.
We also litigated a North Carolina case that became one of the most important Supreme Court cases of the 20th century, the seminal employment discrimination case, Griggs v. Duke Power Co.  The case was decided the same year as the Swann and it was argued by LDF’s second Director-Counsel Jack Greenberg. It established the principle that we now all take for granted- that employers must have a bona fide reason for the tests or qualifications associated with a job. The court’s decision in this case literally transformed the American workplace, creating opportunities for African Americans and women to have access to jobs from which they had been barred by arbitrary rules and tests designed to keep them out of certain fields.
I don’t want to skip over this, this is important because that’s two North Carolina cases that transformed the American public-school system and the American workplace. That’s two cases decided in one year, came out of this state. Now what does that mean? We can talk about the lawyers and we can talk about the Supreme Court but understand that what this means that ordinary North Carolinians were willing to risk their livelihood and, in some cases, their lives, to organize and to serve as plaintiffs to challenge entrenched and unjust structures of inequality. Their courage ultimately changed this entire country.
There are literally hundreds of cases on LDF’s docket since our formation that we have litigated in North Carolina. Our connection to the lawyers of this state and to the communities here is deep and lasting.
And then of course to be here at Duke where Dr. King spoke in 1964, for all of these reasons, I am deeply honored to spend at least a part of this weekend with you this year.
Dr. Reese told me weeks ago that the theme of your event today is: From King to Kaepernick: Progress Through Protest and I thought, terrific, because we started last year, 2017 with one of the largest mass marches ever in this country, the Women’s March. We have seen the “take a knee” protests in the NFL over the past two years. The hashtag “#MeToo” protest has lifted up the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. Protests against police violence against unarmed African Americans continues throughout the country and of course protests against civil war monuments exalting generals and leaders of the confederacy have been taking place all over the country including here, in Durham. And I do think it’s important, I’m glad that Mayor Schewel referred to it to President Price’s important action in removing the Robert E. Lee statue from outside this chapel. I know people maybe think these things are not important, but they are important. That which we exalt reveals what we value and treasure and what our highest aspirations are and so I want to thank again President Price for the action that he took here.
The organization I lead has a long history representing protesters. We represented the Selma marchers in 1965, working with John Lewis and Hosea Williams to draw up the plan that ultimately was accepted by the court to resume the march after the violence of Bloody Sunday. We represented Muhammad Ali, when he refused to submit to the draft for the Vietnam War and lost his boxing license. We represented Freedom Riders, and lunch counter protesters and marchers all over the country. In 1968 our then Director-Counsel Jack Greenberg met with Dr. King in March to discuss LDF’s representation of participants in the Poor People’s Campaign. We agreed that we would represent the protesters and we honored that agreement after Dr. King’s shocking assassination a month later.
But of course, lawyers and protesters are not the same. We represent protesters, we are most often not out on the front line ourselves. Although I have been known to participate in marches when I’m not “on duty”. So, I want to be clear that I cannot speak today from the perspective of a protester.
But the goals of civil rights lawyers and protesters share the commitment to fight for a just and fair society. We demand that this country respect the dignity and humanity of every person within our borders, and that the constitutional rights of citizens are entitled to protection.
I have often said that civil rights work – whether lawyering or activism — is what I call “democracy maintenance work.” Those of us who do this work, do the public service of identifying the flaws in our democracy – the places where our practices do not live up to our principles. Sometimes we find flaws that can more or less be easily repaired. Sometimes we find more serious problems that require a deeper intervention – a rewiring of the power grid and connections in our democracy. And sometimes, sometimes we find dangerous rot at the foundation of our democracy. And when we find this, then this requires a broader, deeper collective plan to first clean out the rot – to reveal its extent and its ugliness. And then to rebuild the foundation with strong, clean, new material that will ensure that we are building on a solid base that can withstand time, and pressure and blows. And I believe that we are at just such a moment today.
I am proud to be a civil rights lawyer. It is, in my view, highest calling of our profession. And I celebrate the work of my colleagues who are grassroots organizers and activists at organizations like Color of Change, and Black Lives Matter and the NAACP who are also engaged in the noblest of work.
But whether we litigate, or we participate in protests on the ground, we recognize that no one tactic can end injustice and that the fight for justice and equality is a war that must be fought on multiple fronts.
Every successful period of civil rights progress in this country has been marked by broad engagement of people from across our society. Lawyers and activists, yes – but also artists, and teachers and writers, politicians and faith leaders, journalists and health care workers, scientists, bankers, investors and athletes.
Perhaps because of our celebration of heroes of the Civil Rights movement like Dr. King and Congressman John Lewis, and Thurgood Marshall, there has become this pervading belief that the obligation to fight for the principles of democracy in which we all profess to believe – fairness, equality, due process, free speech, opportunity – should be undertaken by “civil rights professionals.” It’s the job of activists, and organizers and civil rights lawyers to challenge inequality and to call out injustice.
This belief is perhaps the reason that so many people become angry when they see others taking a stand or speaking out about injustice. Athletes should run, jump, catch balls, swim, swing a racket for our entertainment, some believe, but should play no role as citizens in the necessary work of building this democracy.
Singers and actors should entertain, but never speak out about sexual harassment or racism. Why should an actor care that the water of Flint, Michigan is poisoned, or that the sacred lands of the Standing Rock Sioux are threatened by the Dakota Pipeline? Doctors should diagnose and prescribe and operate, but never publicly show solidarity with those fighting against injustice. To many, when they do so, they are simply out of their place.
But this is just wrong. It is the obligation of every citizen to do their part to sustain a democracy.
And today, I feel perhaps especially today, it is crystal clear and evident, that unless every citizen of this country undertakes their duty to fight for justice and peace and equality and opportunity, this democracy will fail.
It will require every single one of us to become “democracy maintenance workers” in our own way, if this country is to be saved from the abyss over which we currently teeter.
We teeter over this abyss precisely because too many Americans have abdicated their obligation to take an active role in the everyday obligations of true citizenship and have left the fight for our democratic values and principles to others.
We teeter on the abyss because too many Americans have abdicated their obligation to speak the truth. Many are frightened of the truth. Yes, it is a tough thing – in some ways an awful thing – to have to call-out the President of the United States when he makes racist remarks. Even for someone like me – who does this work every day it is painful. I barely slept Thursday night, wracked with anger and grief at the debasement of our public discourse and of our country.
I was overcome with disappointment and anger that we approached Martin Luther King weekend having to address this evidence of how far we have to go. But because of Dr. King’s work and courage, because of his honesty and commitment, because Dr. King paid the ultimate price for our failures to deal with the terrible scourge of racism in this country, I will do what feels awful and sounds harsh, for the cause of justice. It makes us uncomfortable and we wish we could find a way to avoid the truth. But we are here – today – honoring a man who gave his life for this country. I say “gave” his life because that is what he did. It was not taken from him, he gave it.
He spoke many times about how close the threat of death was to him. He was confronted by violent opposition on many occasions. He faced burning crosses and assaults. He saw the fallout of firebombs and assassinations. But he had committed himself to non-violence and to being what he called a “drum major for justice.” And so, he was prepared to give – to give – his life.
And fifty years later, we have to ask ourselves are we too timid to even speak the truth? Journalists skirt around the issues. Politicians say we should not engage in name-calling. We have come up with synonyms for racism so that we can avoid seeing what stares us in the face.
We would not call it what it was, when the first African American President was subjected to the kind of insults, challenges and indignities that every Black pioneer – from Jackie Robinson to the Little Rock Nine to Arthur Ashe to Vivian Malone and Harvey Gantt – have had to face. We pretended that the treatment of the first Black president was not a warning that we still had a long way to go.
When he was denigrated for not wearing a jacket in the Oval Office, or when a major University would not give him an honorary degree because their alumni protested, this in the first year he was in office. When the President was heckled by a congressman during a joint session of Congress, when he was compelled to prove his legitimacy as a natural-born American, by the very man who now occupies the presidency – many pretended that these were not ominous signs that the dark and dangerous rot of racism was still corroding the foundations of our democracy.
And so here we are – in 2018 – a time in which American born and raised young men who call themselves Nazis and march with impunity carrying flags with swastikas in the streets of our cities – in which we expel from our country people who have lived here for decades having fled violence and persecution in their own countries.
We are here in 2018, having decided as national policy to turn our backs on the sacred trust of protecting this planet from environmental degradation.
We are here in 2018, having given such license to white supremacy that hate crimes have risen in every region in our country. Timothy Caughman was killed in New York City last year by a young white man who traveled from Baltimore for the purpose of killing Black men and killed him with a sword on the street in midtown. Two white men were killed in Portland, Oregon for coming to the aid of young Muslim woman who was being taunted by a white supremacist on the light rail in that city last year. Heather Heyer was killed in Charlottesville by a white supremacist. And that’s just three of the murders. Not to mention the countless assaults and attacks on Muslim women wearing hijab, on Asian Americans and African Americans, on churches and synagogues all a testament to the pervasiveness and growing violence of white supremacy.
We are here in this time, unable and unwilling to contain the scourge of gun violence – even when it touches our little children in their schools, parishioners worshipping at church, and when it leaves countless women who live in the terror of domestic violence in utter captivity to violent partners.
We are here in this time – in 2018 –when millions of our fellow citizens lived and still live without electrical power for months on the island of Puerto Rico, many without clean water, without hot food, after the devastation of a hurricane. We have watched this, we have read about it, maybe we have even lamented it. But we must accept that we have allowed this to happen on our watch. Because we believed perhaps that it was someone else’s job – some elected official or government agency, or some activist organization fighting for the Latino community, someone else’s responsibility to compel the proper and decent response to a humanitarian crisis within our own borders.
We are here in this time – one hundred years after the passage of the 14th amendment to the Constitution – the amendment that was required nearly one hundred years after that most shameful compromise at the root of our country’s formation the compromise that denied full  citizenship and personhood to African Americans. We’re here one hundred and fifty years after the passage of the 14th amendment, one hundred and forty-seven years after the end of the Civil War, still fighting for the full ability of African Americans to vote and participate equally in the political process. Just last year two federal courts found that states had engaged in intentional racial discrimination in passing voter suppression statutes designed to keep Black people from voting.
Think about what this means. The legislatures of two states in this country met and collectively enacted statutes designed to undermine the ability of Black people to vote. Not in the 19th century. Not in the 20th century. But in the 21st century.
This happened on our watch. Of course, one of those states was the state of North Carolina. Your legislature in 2013 passed a law containing a series of measures that the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals described as having “surgical precision” in the effort to suppress the votes of African Americans. In Texas, we at the Legal Defense Fund litigated a case challenging Texas’s voter ID law and the federal court there, found that the voter ID law also was racially discriminatory. It was the law that barred our clients, students at Prairie View A&M University from using their state university ID to vote but allowed the use of a concealed gun carry permit to vote.
And just last week the federal court found that the redistricting map used to elect North Carolina representatives to the United States Congress violates the United States Constitution.
I want to remind you that these laws were passed before the candidacy of Donald Trump. It was not Mr. Trump who compelled the legislatures of those states to seek to deny the right that the Supreme Court has described as “preservative of all rights” – the right to vote.
The passage of these laws should have sounded an alarm across the nation. An alarm that something was very wrong – something at the foundation of our democracy – that demanded our collective attention.
And of course, there is the issue of police violence against unarmed African Americans. Not a new issue in America. Sheriff Joe Arpaio was and is a disgrace to law enforcement. But so was Sheriff Bull Connor in Birmingham and Sheriff Willis McCall in Lake County, Florida and on and on. The killing of unarmed African Americans by law enforcement has been a key civil rights issue for decades. It occupied Thurgood Marshall in the 1940s, Julius Chambers and Elaine Jones in the 1990s as Director-Counsels of the Legal Defense Fund and it occupies me today.
But it was not until the technology of cell phones allowed courageous people to show America the truth of these killings – Eric Garner choked to death on a New York City street corner, saying “I can’t breathe” eleven times before his death. Walter Scott running for his life from a police officer who took aim and shot him in the back in a public park. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, playing alone with a toy gun in a park shot by a police officer within seconds. Philando Castille bleeding to death in the passenger seat of a car while his terrified girlfriend narrates his death on Facebook and her brave and beautiful daughter tries to comfort her devastated mother.
Terrence Crutcher with his hands up, shot to death by Officer Betty Shelby on a road in Tulsa, Oklahoma while we hear the tape of another police officer observing the encounter from a helicopter, thousands of feet above, who purports to be able to see that Mr. Crutcher – an unarmed Black man — is “a bad dude.”
It is only those videos that have convinced some to believe that we have a problem that threatens the integrity of our justice system, and that rightfully alienates African Americans around the country from our justice system.
And yet, the use by law enforcement officials of the state using brutal, life-ending power against its own unarmed citizens with impunity is widely recognized around the world as a sign that a democracy is in trouble.
These videos sounded an alarm among young people who took to the streets and too often they were met with tanks and batons and tear gas. It should have sounded an alarm – not just in Black communities or in the corridors of the Legal Defense Fund or in the community meetings of Black Lives Matter.
This evidence of one of the most frightening manifestations of democracy’s end should have sent shockwaves of activism throughout the country and throughout every home. Employees should have been huddling at every workplace to discuss what they can do. Every church, every temple, every mosque should have become a place of discussion and planning for peaceful protests and moral engagement to confront this danger.
But to the contrary strong forces have attempted to stifle the impulse of justice-minded people to speak and act against the growing tide of injustice in our country. When one talented and upright young man of conscience, on one team, in one professional sport, in one city — quietly sat and then quietly took a knee during our national anthem to draw attention to the issue of police violence – he was, vilified, lambasted, and some believe blackballed from his profession – by those who audaciously call themselves patriots. Their success in capturing the narrative that Mr. Kaepernick’s protest is about “the flag” or “the military” is itself its own alarm. It shows us that the symbols of our national identity have been hijacked and are now deployed to suppress and shut-down the very actions that demonstrate the highest levels of patriotism and civic engagement.
We are in a moment. A moment when I truly believe that we are being driven to confront the rot in the foundation of our democracy that we have failed to remove. We have papered it over. We have chosen to just avoid going to the basement so as not to confront it. We have pretended that there is not this weakness at the core of our nation. And so, it has spread. And it is now weakening every pillar of our democracy.
That rot – racism –has weakened us as a nation in every way. Americans can be so easily manipulated by race, that people around the world know it. The evidence now shows that Russian hackers and trolls used fake Facebook and twitter posts to stir up racial animus and tension during the 2016 election. That means we have reached the point that our racism has become a national security vulnerability.
Its ugly rhetoric and the irrational and mean-spirited policies it inspires are often what we now see every day advanced by this President. But he did not create it. And he did not keep us as a nation from tending to this rot that we had every reason to know was eating away at the foundations of our democracy for decades. Dylan Roof entered a church meeting in Charleston, South Carolina and killed nine Black people at a prayer meeting well before Mr. Trump announced his bid for the presidency.
We are here because we have abdicated our responsibility to do what concerned citizens must do – join together in unity to confront the problems and excesses that threaten the vitality of our democracy.
We failed as a nation to take up the responsibility of the daily fight for the world we wish to see. We took our foot off the gas. We substituted an appetite for lurid stories and unusual and bizarre personalities to supplant the hard work required to make good policy and pass sound laws.
That’s the bad news. So, how can we chart a different path?
First, we have to roll up our sleeves and prepare for a protracted period of hard work. All is not lost. But we just have to have the courage and the willingness to do what generations before us did at particular moments in our history. Whether it was to fight against fascism in World War II, or in the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s, our parents, our grandparents, our great-grandparents did not shirk their obligation to work for our future. And we cannot shirk our obligation to work for the future of those young people who you saw come up this aisle full of power and passion and optimism and brilliance.
I know you have been doing your part here in North Carolina. I am thrilled to hear about your University Commission on Memory. That in of itself is vitally important to confront the violence of forgetting. Suppressed history and gas lighting is its own form of violence and I am thrilled to hear that you are doing that. You encourage me in North Carolina. Your engagement in the Moral Majority movement many of you went out to the state house to protest, you have lifted up visionary leaders like the Reverend William Barber, you have compelled yourselves to confront your past and to engage with the history of the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 you’ve been galvanized to engage in real battles around equality and justice.
Reverend Barber’s now launched a Poor People’s Campaign that is spreading across the nation and it is exciting and encouraging to see people joining it. You started that here in North Carolina. You once again were the place that began a movement that I believe is going to be an important part of transforming this country.
Civil rights lawyers have been winning in the court – whether it is our win in challenging Texas’ voter ID law, the North Carolina voting case litigated by other brilliant civil rights lawyers, like Anita Earl, who I believe is here today and is now a candidate I believe for the state supreme court of North Carolina, you should check her out. Our wins in court with the Muslim ban cases, the recent decision protecting “Dreamers” – goodness we litigated the Presidents Voter Fraud Commission out of existence. So we have been winning some cases. I’m proud and pleased and encouraged that the rule of law has been holding steady.
But we need more. We need to do more than just hold the line. We need to imagine and fight for greater justice. I’m just ambitious enough to believe that in this moment of retraction we should be even more ambitious in our vision for equality and justice. We need a radical vision to  move us forward we need to vote in every election. Every election. And then to demand that those we elect to represent us, to fight for a radical vision that elevates us.
I am a deeply optimistic person. It is impossible to lead an organization like the Legal Defense Fund and not be optimistic. Think about our early years: and what the walk of those lawyers meant. A group of African American lawyers led a plan, a strategic plan to use the law to reshape the contours of American democracy. Thurgood Marshall and Jack Greenberg and Constance Baker Motley and Robert Carter had never themselves seen the world they attempted to create when they created the plan to end racial segregation. They had a bold and radical vision of what could be, and they worked over years, decades, relentlessly until the thing they imagined became reality.
And if we choose to do so, we can be as radical in our vision and as relentless in our work.
I was just sharing with my staff last week that one of the advantages of doing this work for a long time and working as we do in multiple communities across the country, in the areas of education, criminal justice, economic justice and voting, is that you get to see the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate systems of oppression. You have to be able to first recognize the problem. A civil rights activist once told me that “racism” he said “is a shape-shifter.” And our job is to learn to see it in it many guises. And If you are humble enough to regard yourself as a student of this work, as I do even as you become an expert, you begin to be able to see it in all its guises.
Our job, I told our staff is to see the architecture of injustice and racism– not just incidents of racism – but the architecture, the scaffolding—and then to dismantle it and to provide the communities we represent with the tools to build a new architecture of justice and equality in its place.
So I want to end by briefly talking with you about what I believe is the most urgent project before us at this moment in a country that is as fractured and divided as I’ve ever seen it in my lifetime. And the project I think that we must embark upon is reclaiming the importance of public life. Because I believe that the most successful guise that racism has assumed over the last sixty years, has been to hide itself within the broader attack on public life and public engagement.
Beginning with our success in Brown v. Board of Education , public life has been under attack by forces of oppression. Public life was important and regarded as worthy of national investment when it was believed that white people would get the greatest benefit from it. When Brown threatened that white control of public goods, white supremacists began a systematic attack on public goods that has allowed racism to infect every decision about public resources, policies, practices and laws – all without ever mentioning race. Which is why the project on racial equity that that the Mayor described earlier is so important.
As Richard Rothstein, a fellow in LDF’s Thurgood Marshall Institute wrote in his acclaimed 2016 book, The Color of Law4, public housing was originally built for low-income whites. Federally insured mortgage instruments were created and offered on a segregated basis such that the wealth of almost every white family that owned a home certainly before the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968 can be traced to explicit governmental racial discrimination. The G.I. Bill was designed to help soldiers coming home from World War II have access to free college and home ownership. The billions of dollars pumped into the creation of the interstate highway system made the creation of the white suburbs possible.
These were massive public investments, made principally for the benefit of white Americans.
Public universities were segregated and held for whites in the south until lawyers at the Legal Defense Fund – Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley – and many others sued to desegregate them. Investments in public transportation were regarded as critical to the economic growth of cities.
But the “Massive Resistance” to Brown v. Board of Education began a project in which whites first throughout the south and later even in the north – came to equate investments in public life with Black people. In other words, once it was understood that public goods would have to be shared on an equal and non-segregated basis, the interest in public investment dissipated.
Suddenly, public education was starved for funds. In fact, in the early years after Brown, southern whites used public school funds to open private white academies until we sued to outlaw the practice. And heads-up, don’t think that the current Education Secretary is not working towards a very similar effort today and we may have to sue again.
I mark the closing of the schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia as a crucial national moment . Rather than offer integrated public education, the school board of Prince Edward County, Virginia closed the public schools from 1959-1964. Five years. Whites sent their children to private academies. Blacks were left to send their children to relatives in other counties or states or simply to accept the interruption of their children’s educations for five years.
This happened in America. The denial of education to public school students for five years rather than integrate.
And this post-Brown period – this fight over public schools in Virginia and North Carolina and Boston and Detroit – marked the beginning of a narrative that associated that which is public with race.
Just think about it: public housing, I just said was built for low income whites, but when you think of public housing today it is regarded as a public good created for Black and Brown
people. If I say public transportation, once again it carries an image of racial minorities using its services. Most people who receive public assistance are white, and yet “welfare” and “Medicaid” carry the image of Black people as recipients.
And so, our societal narrative has come to lionize and value the private over the public. Private schools, our private cars rather than public transportation, private homes as far from our neighbors as possible.
But I believe that the only way to repair the rot at the foundation of our democracy is to reclaim the value of public life. To invest in the public structures that bring us together in which we can most readily see our shared destiny. I do not suggest this because I think that such a course will only help Black people. Those white people who purport to suffer from economic anxiety have also been harmed by our disinvestment from public life. It is a price many of them have been willing to pay in exchange for the intoxicating but empty high of feeling superior to Black people. But they too need the return to investments in public goods. And our democracy needs it. A democracy – especially a multi-racial pluralistic democracy- one that is the American experiment will only survive and thrive if we are able to see ourselves as connected in a common project. If we are compelled to focus on what knits us together rather than what separates us.
We need investments in infrastructure – public transportation, our water systems, our rail lines, our electrical grid. We need to invest in our voting system, so that every voter can have confidence in the safety and security of our election system.
But most of all, we must invest in public education. Along with voting, a shared system of quality public education is essential to a functioning and fair democracy. Perhaps we have forgotten that the Supreme Court recognized this in Brown. Yes, we remember Brown for what it said about segregated education harming African American children in the South. But we must also remember that the Court in Brown said two other things.
First, the Court described education as the “single most important function of local government.”  Not football stadiums, or lotteries but public education as the single most important function of local government. Ask yourself whether you believe that your local government regards public education as that important.
Why is it so important? Why is it the single most important function of local government? The Supreme Court told us the answer to that in Brown as well. The second thing we may have forgotten is that the Supreme Court in brown, described education as the “very foundation of citizenship.”  We have forgotten this at our peril. We have focused on test scores and graduation rates – all very important. But we have forgotten that public education is the crucible in which we form the sense of citizenship of young people. That is, in large measure why segregated education is dangerous. It allows for the formation of citizenship in an environment that is artificial and exclusionary. It fails to prepare our children – Black, white, brown – to exercise citizenship in our democracy. And I emphasize again not just Black children, but white children as well. The
Supreme Court never mentioned it in the Brown decision, but in our presentation of the case, we also provided expert testimony that racial segregation in schools’ harms not only Black children but white children as well.
And Unless we turn this around, all of our work as civil rights and justice warriors will be in vain. It is a project that will take decades to fix, but we must take this on. It is a project of democracy and citizenship. It will compel us to confront the truth: that structural and widespread racial inequality cannot exist within a healthy democracy.
Racism – unaddressed, untreated, and today freed from even the confines of shame and taboo – will surely destroy our democracy. If we had any doubt before, this past year should make that plain.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that public education is costly, that our political system is broken, that this is an entrenched problem with no solution.
But understand that we are always making investments. The only question is where we will choose to make those investments. Thirty years ago, we decided to make massive investments that were a failure.
Rather than invest in addressing the root causes of poverty, investing in schools, and jobs and mental health services, we chose as a nation to place our investments in the criminal justice system. We developed a system that has grown to five times the size it was in 1970. It was an investment in mass incarceration and It was a bad investment – driven by racism and stereotypes, narrow economic interests, short-sighted policy.
Now, when (despite what you hear from the current Attorney General), with the exception of very specific cities in our country, violent crime is at an all-time low, we have the opportunity to make other kinds of investments.
Can we make them tomorrow? No. Clearly our political system is such that there is no will to embrace a vision at this moment for the future of this country that imagines the kind of investments I’ve described.
And so, we must support a political system and actors in it who will embrace that vision. Dr. King, said in 1965 at the close of the Selma to Montgomery March that this is precisely what we must do. He encouraged us to “march on the ballot box” until race baiters leave the political arena He said we must march on segregated housing and on segregated schools and he reminded us that marching is biblically encouraged – that Joshua was encouraged by God to march his people on the walls of Jericho seven times until they came crumbling down.
So we must engage in non-violent protest in the streets, online. We must decide that we will fight for justice and equality wherever and however we can.
Of course, at LDF we will do our part in the courts along with many other civil rights lawyers. We will continue to file cases that expose the architecture of racism. We will show up in Congress and in the state house, at school board meetings and before those agencies that advance policy. We will hold our own profession accountable, where lawyers and judges and prosecutors fail to confront injustice. We will continue to fight to put the tools in your hands that will allow you to construct the scaffolding for a new and just America.
But this is a fight in which everyone must join. Each one of us must be vigilant every day and take up our responsibility to fight for our democracy. I’m reminded of what Martin Luther King told us a year after the Montgomery Bus Boycott began when he returned from Africa where he and his wife Coretta Scott King attended the independence ceremony for The Republic of Ghana.
I feel I must make this reference today given the monstrous remarks of our President on Thursday about the continent of Africa. Civil rights leaders so often enjoyed a relationship of collegiality and shared purpose with emerging leaders from Africa. Thurgood Marshall took a leave from LDF to travel to Ghana to assist his friend Kwame Nkrumah with whom he had been classmates at Lincoln University, and he assisted in the writing of their first constitution. LDF has enjoyed a close relationship with civil rights lawyers in South Africa and indeed our second Director-Counsel Jack Greenberg helped with the formation of the Legal Resources Centre in South Africa.
When King returned from Ghana he gave a speech in which he described four lessons he took from observing the Ghanaian road to independence from British rule and I’ll leave you with these four and I will take my seat.
First, King said, the Ghana experience showed him that the oppressor never voluntarily gives freedom to the oppressed. Do not believe, King said, that “freedom will roll out on the wheels of inevitability.” It will require on our part he said, “persistent revolt, and persistent agitation” or as King liked to say “we’ve got to keep on keeping on.”
Second, King said that the Ghanaian transition to independence from British rule proved that the people can break loose from oppression without taking up violence. That it is possible to do this peacefully.
Third, he said that the struggle of the Ghanaians demonstrated, that freedom is never easy. King said prophetically in 1957 “you better get ready for some homes and churches to be bombed and to have some bad things said about you. He cautioned “there will be hours of despair…that’s the long story of freedom”. He said, “there will be temporary setbacks and periods of tension.”
Finally, King said that Ghana’s history and journey to independence demonstrated that the “forces of the universe”, and this I love, “are on the side of justice”. He said that no matter what it looks like, “the old order is passing away and a new order is coming in.”
And I believe this. I know this to be true. You must know it too. Those who stand in opposition to injustice know it as well – that’s why they’re fighting so hard to hold on.
But this change won’t just happen. I believe – as I know Dr. King did – that we’ve got to push the old order out and usher the new order in. And I am ready. Because you are here this evening, I know that you are too.
Thank you very much.
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1 Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Bd. of Ed., 402 U.S. 1, 91 S. Ct. 1267, 28 L. Ed. 2d 554 (U.S. 1971)
2 Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 U.S. 424, 91 S. Ct. 849, 28 L. Ed. 2d 158 (U.S. 1971)
3 Brown v. Bd. of Educ. of Topeka, Kan., 349 U.S. 294, 75 S. Ct. 753, 99 L. Ed. 1083 (1955)
4 Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (2018).
5 Griffin v. Cty. Sch. Bd. of Prince Edward Cty., 377 U.S. 218, 84 S. Ct. 1226, 12 L. Ed. 2d 256 (1964)
6 Brown v. Bd. of Educ. of Topeka, Kan., 349 U.S. 294, 75 S. Ct. 753, 99 L. Ed. 1083 (1955)