Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy Remarks on Brown vs. Board of Education Anniversary
Good evening. I'm Justice Anthony Kennedy of the Supreme Court speaking you do you from Washington D.C. I wish I had had the occasion to be with you in Sacramento My former. Home city. But the spring of each year is the time when the Supreme Court is at its busiest. This is the time of year when we issue our decisions before the June 30 recess. And it was this time of year 50 years ago on May 17th that the Supreme Court issued its decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education. And I know that you're here to mark that decision. And to learn more about the life and the splendid work
of my late wonderful colleague and dear friend Thurgood Marshall the opinion of the court in Brown vs. Board of Education is something I say in that you're here to mark. Why didn't I say celebrate. I could have done that. And surely there is much to celebrate. Well I think the word mark might be more important because it reminds us that the promise of Brown the hope of brown the idea of brown is yet to be yet. Are things that are yet to be fulfilled the promise of Brown has not yet been fulfilled. And so I say Mark rather than celebrate although it's a time for us to do both.
Now on the Supreme Court an opinion is binding law if a majority of nine justices vote for it. So if it's a 5 to 4 decision that decision is still binding on the country and you have Thurgood Marshall and many others thought that it was important for the court to be unanimous. They thought it was important that the vote be 9 0. Thurgood Marshall was in the courtroom the day it was announced and he was elated when he found out that the court was unanimous. Why was he elated. Why was that important. I'll address that at the end.
It was recognized immediately that this was a landmark decision. I was a graduating senior at McClatchy High School in Sacramento and may have 1054 my father was a lawyer. I had seen segregation on visits and my work in the south. And so I suppose I was a little bit ahead of the curve in that respect as I remember my father telling me what an important decision it was. Let me give you one little contemporaneous historical measure of how important it was and how its importance was recognized immediately. I looked at the newspaper clippings for the New York Times from 18th the day after the decision came out reporting the decision of the New York Times does not give a four page headline
to any news unless it's the beginning of a war the end of the war the tragic death of the president. But if you look at the New York Times from eighteen thousand nine hundred fifty four you will see that it's a full column headline. The Supreme Court of the United States bans segregation. And part of the headline also is that the decision was nine to nothing. I've looked at microfiche for the Sacramento Bee from 18th 1954 and I wanted to have that with me as well but I was unable to retrieve it in time. Maybe as part of your research you might look at the Sacramento Bee for May eighteen thousand nine hundred fifty four. And I mention that Thurgood Marshall was in the courtroom and I know you're going to see the film on his life. The film called Separate but equal.
Thurgood was a marvelous trial attorney. The trial process is much more exciting much more dynamic than the appellate process before the Supreme Court. Thurgood tried over 100 criminal cases in the south involving black defendants who had a death penalty threatened against them and he would have to go into the town and buy one route and one car and leave in another he put his life on the line he was a marvelous courtroom attorney. I met him when he came to Stanford University just a year or two later. I was one of three students asked to meet him. It never occurred to me that this man who was a hero and was a prophet in his own time would later become my friend and my colleague on the Supreme on the Supreme Court. Some of us went to the opening of the separate but equal the movie and and for the preview here in Washington D.C. Thurgood love the movie he was thrilled he was
thrilled that Sidney Poitier was playing his part and we kidded him we said that well for good you were pretty handsome fellow yourself in those days. And he laughed. Some of the producers or some representatives of the producers that visited with us a few months before and I had suggested to them that I did not particularly like the title separate but equal why did I say that. I did not want to spoil the the movie in any way for Thurgood so I didn't mention it to him. But I'll ask you why separate but equal might not be just the right title might be a bit confusing. Thurgood loved the movie as I said except for one thing. And I said What was that what was the one thing that bothered you. And he said well he said there was a whiskey bottle on the table in my office where they had the scene of my colleagues and I talking about the cases in the office he said I never allowed whisky in the office. That's because he thought the law office and the practice of law was as
important as holy and as a sacred as being in a courtroom because that's where the rights of his clients were on the line and I thought that was a very interesting and important reaction. Still it was a wonderful movie and he was a very very proud of it. The problem I have with separate but equal Have you thought about that. What's wrong with the title separate but equal. The thing wrong with it I think is that this was the doctrine the Thurgood was crusading against this was the doctrine that the Supreme Court invalidated in the Brown decision. Separate but equal has a nice sound to it doesn't it. But the point is that we are all equal. And then if you make a separate. Then you were destroying the promise of the quality you were destroying the promise of the Constitution. Finally I asked why is it important that the opinion be unanimous. There was one justice
who was thinking of filing a dissent so the opinion would have been eight to one. He was Stanley Reed Stanley Reed was from Kentucky and he lived in Washington for many years where there was segregation for him segregation was a part of the way of life that he lived and to have to sign on to that opinion would mean that he was saying that the life he lived had been morally wrong. And yet he did it. And that's a reminder to us that there is discrimination and injustice and unfairness and inequity in our society and we're sometimes blind to that we sometimes don't see it. But when we do see it we must have the moral courage to say that this is wrong and to move forward because this is the way society progresses and this is the way the promise of the Constitution becomes a reality. Thank you very much. And I hope you enjoy your evening
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- Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy Remarks on Brown vs. Board of Education Anniversary
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- APA: Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy Remarks on Brown vs. Board of Education Anniversary . Boston, MA: WHUT, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-293-02q574fr