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Clinton Speaks on Brown v. Board of Education at Low Library

By Colin Morris

Before a packed crowd in the Low Library Rotunda, former President Bill Clinton heralded the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education and its positive reverberations throughout American society, but he also highlighted the struggles that still remain. The former president was the keynote speaker at the second event in a yearlong series cosponsored by Columbia and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) celebrating the landmark ruling that barred state-imposed racial segregation in schools. Law Professor Jack Greenberg, director of the LDF from 1961 to 1984, who was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by Clinton in 2001, gave the opening remarks. Clinton was introduced by Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger, who noted that the former president "has been a national and international leader on issues of integration and its benefits."

"I came today to remember the lessons of Brown ... and to remind you that school is not out on America's struggle to build one nation, and to bring the world together across the racial, religious, ethnic and tribal lines that divide it," Clinton said. The president emphasized that Brown was not just a big victory but also an early one, which may have given its winners a false sense of security. He noted that it was not until an entire decade later that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed.

For Clinton , the legal intricacies of the Brown ruling are less important than the enduring core values Brown set into place among the American public. Humans love to separate and categorize most things in life, Clinton explained, which, in social terms, can yield unintentionally divisive results.

"Those of us who fancy ourselves as well-educated sometimes remind ourselves how smart we are by all the distinctions we can make. You can't navigate the world unless you can put the reality into little boxes. Differences make life interesting, but common humanity is more important. I think Brown really represented a turning point in the inner life of America ," Clinton said. "Brown offered a vision of a better America ."

Clinton said that he didn't believe the victors of Brown expected overnight results. "Most of the folks weren't surprised that we continued to have problems with integration elsewhere. Those who have passed on probably wouldn't be surprised that there are schools that are disproportionately black and poor today." But the core values, Clinton stressed, continue to endure. "Brown simply began to codify the values that the framers enshrined in the Declaration and Constitution and defined in their lives."

"Brown changed us forever for the better, but no one can doubt that there is still work to be done," he said. Yet disparities between races still remain, and in some cases, have worsened, the former president conceded. Clinton lamented that the vast majority of schools with a high concentration of minorities suffer from concentrated poverty, which, citing a recent Harvard study, he said contributes to unequal education opportunity. "While the problems of American minorities -- particularly black minorities -- may have been racially triggered and may have a huge racial context today, they cannot be fully solved by race-based legal solutions."

Nevertheless, Clinton praised Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger for his efforts in defending affirmative action during his presidency at the University of Michigan . "We recognize that affirmative action is still needed in our society; that if there are problems, they can be addressed without throwing it out all together; that the racial disparities are still real," the former president said.

Clinton went on to stress that other means of leveling the playing field between races through economic gains were necessary. "Don't blame Brown for the return of class warfare," he warned.

"Isn't the real lesson of Brown that we continued in the same direction?" the former president asked. Clinton implored members of the LDF, Columbia Law students and all Americans of goodwill "not to waste a moment's breath on criticizing Brown because it couldn't solve every social and economic problem in America 50 years later."

Clinton said that all Americans must ask themselves what's next. "But if we remind ourselves of how Brown changed the inner life of America , we can find the wisdom and strength to do what has to be done."

Clinton cited the U.S. military as a successful example of how affirmative action can be implemented successfully. "The promise of Brown has worked better in the military than in any other sector in our society," Clinton said. "There, it was taken to its logical conclusion more aggressively in terms of creating opportunity and letting everyone develop on the basis of their God-given ability."

Toward the end of his talk, Clinton began to sound more like a preacher and less like a politician. "And so I say to you," he declared, "if you want to believe that separate but equal is a fraud, you can't make everyone equal economically in a free enterprise system, but if you chain them into inequality you have done a grievous thing. If you take away their chance for opportunity ... that is the primary obstacle to realizing the dream of Brown.

"Economics matter," he concluded. "Jobs matter, investment matters, education, healthcare and housing matter. Finding some alternative to sending all these kids to prison matters, and we cannot do it if our most important domestic priority is to keep those of us who have been fortunate to live in America, no matter what our skin, to pay the lowest possible taxes. We ought to pay our way, and that too should be part of the legacy of Brown."

Published: Mar 02, 2003
Last modified: Mar 01, 2004

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