Remarks at the 49th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education
Detroit Institute of Art
May 17, 2003
Judge Keith—it is an honor to be here and to be part of this amazing set of speakers.
This one of the most inspiring and joyous events I have ever attended. It is especially meaningful to me, because Judge Keith personifies everything we are fighting for at the University of Michigan.
What an astounding story his life has been: to be the first in his family to graduate from college, and to have his father live to see it; to advance to the federal bench at such a young age; and to make such a difference to our society through the passions of his life.
And more than anything, to open the door to everyone with ability—to everyone.
He has produced an entire generation of legal experts!
He has made his clerkships available to the very best lawyers:
To men and to women!
To the top lawyers of all races!
To clerks from Lani Guinier to Jennifer Granholm!
He has appointed more minority law clerks than any federal judge in history! What a fantastic legacy he has created!
He has shaped the future of this nation through his rulings on affirmative action.
And we at the University of Michigan join him in our commitment to defend that policy, which has opened the door to so many talented and deserving students.
I want you to take a minute to think of the illustration that was on your invitation to this wonderful event.
It was the front page of The New York Times, May 18, 1954, the day after the decision of Brown v. Board of Education.
The huge headline reads:
“High Court Bans School Desegregation. Nine to zero decision.”
And under that headline is a famous photograph, showing Thurgood Marshall in the center. He is clearly jubilant.
I was so struck by that photograph, that I got a larger version of it from the Library of Congress. And then I saw that it was not just a great photograph, but also a powerful social document.
In the full photograph, you can see the genius of the photographer, and the genius of Thurgood Marshall.
He is standing on the steps of the Supreme Court, and just above Justice Marshall’s head are gigantic letters, engraved on the edifice of the Court.
Those letters spell the words:
“Equal justice under law.”
What a brilliant phrase that is—and it is the phrase that completely describes the life of Judge Keith.
I want to recite a famous saying in legal circles, and there are so many lawyers in this room that I know you can recite it with me:
“Justice delayed—is justice denied.”
Have we achieved “equal justice under law”? It is our goal, but we are not finished yet.
What an irony it is, to be leading the charge on behalf of affirmative action in a state that still has such significant segregation.
I am so privileged to be leading the University of Michigan at this time when we are leading the fight to defend affirmative action.
And with me tonight is the general counsel for the University,
Marvin Krislov – he has been the architect of our defense,
and we owe him a big “thank you!”
And we have had so many supporters in our long battle – some of you in this room have even signed amicus briefs on our behalf.
Governor Granholm, Mayor Kilpatrick, and President Reid, all have gone on record in support of our cases. We are so grateful to all of you who have filed on our behalf.
This is an historic struggle.
The implications are just as profound as the decision of Brown
v. Board of Education.
This is a fight that the University of Michigan has been willing to wage because it is our pledge to create a broadly diverse university community.
We know that bringing students from all backgrounds together in significant numbers benefits everyone.
Our policies have allowed us to break down stereotypes because we have provided a home for the full diversity that exists within races.
The principle we are defending has become part of the fabric of our society.
Six weeks ago, the University of Michigan stood before the Supreme
Court to make its case.
We asked the court to affirm America, by re-affirming affirmative action.
That trip was an extraordinary experience for me, for the University of Michigan, and for the friends of diversity everywhere.
One of the great highlights of my life will always be the hours I spent listening to the oral arguments at the Supreme Court.
And to emerge from the Court to join the thousands of supporters of affirmative action—on the very steps where Thurgood Marshall stood—was a thrill I could not have anticipated.
There were thousands of Michigan residents—I am sure some
of you were there—who took buses to Washington to be part
of that day.
Our policies have had a tremendous impact on the life of the University of Michigan.
It is simply a better institution because of the diversity we have been able to create through our policies, which have been upheld in the lower courts in this lengthy process.
As we wait for the decision of the Supreme Court, our University continues to move forward, acting on its principles.
The nation is looking to the University of Michigan for leadership
I am so proud to be leading the University at this historic moment.
And I am so proud to be here tonight—all of you are providing light and inspiration to the future of our country.
Join me in pronouncing the engraved words on the front of the Supreme Court:
“Equal justice under law.”
Let us all commit to living that principle every day, as Judge Keith has done every day of his life.