Kansas: AG says work begun with Brown case is unfinished Holder's wife also spoke at event marking anniversary of landmark decision

By John Hanna

AP Political Writer

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Eric Holder, the nation's first black U.S. attorney general, said Tuesday night that much work in promoting equality and opportunity remains nearly six decades after the U.S. Supreme Court's "single greatest" decision declaring segregated schools unconstitutional.

Holder traveled to Topeka, a city where a once-segregated school district was the subject of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, for the 57th anniversary of the ruling, which remains a landmark in the civil rights movement.

The annual May 17 observance gives scholars, public officials and former and current civil rights activists the opportunity to assess the nation's progress toward political, social and economic equality since 1954. About 400 state and local officials and activists attended the event.

"There are still too many children whose opportunities in life are limited by the circumstances of their birth. There are too many neighborhoods that continue to be menaced by gun-, gang-, and drug-fueled violence - and too many communities where young people are more likely to go to prison than to college," Holder said. "The struggle that drew the world's attention to Topeka more than half a century ago goes on."

Holder was joined as a speaker by his wife, Dr. Sharon Malone. Her sister was among the first black students at the University of Alabama in the 1960s, and she recounted her family's experiences.

"They acutely understood what had been denied them," she said of her parents, who were determined to see their children be well-educated. "They simply refused to believe that the prevailing notion of the day that was offered them was all that they deserved."

Holder was appointed attorney general by President Barack Obama, the nation's first black chief executive. Holder is a former judge for the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, a former U.S. attorney for the district and a former deputy attorney general. His wife is an obstetrician.

Holder recalled that he was only 3 years old when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Brown decision. He said that whatever challenges his generation faced, it would no longer face a society in which separate schools for black and white children were considered equal under the U.S. Constitution.

"That was a profound and long-overdue accomplishment in itself -- even if other critical changes didn't happen as quickly. But, in a broader sense, this Supreme Court case was also the spark that ignited the modern civil rights movement," he said. "Here in America, our greatest dreams are not beyond our capabilities; our most cherished hopes are not beyond our reach, and our goals are not beyond our lifetimes."

The decision's title comes from a 1951 lawsuit against Topeka's then-segregated public schools by the Rev. Oliver Brown and 12 other black parents recruited by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The parents tried to enroll children in all-white elementary schools, expecting to be rebuffed, to set up the legal challenge.

The U.S. Supreme Court combined the Kansas case with cases from Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia and the District of Columbia, reversing a previous ruling that the constitution permitted "separate but equal" schools for black and white children. The high court declared that separate schools were inherently unequal.

"Those who are willing to march toward justice can change the world," he said. "Make no mistake: Here in Topeka, and in the communities across the country that participated in this historic case -- that's exactly what you did in 1954, and what our nation has continued to do in the decades since."

Monroe Elementary School, the all-black school, that Brown's daughter, Linda, was required to attend, is now a national historic site dedicated to the history of the Brown decision and the civil rights era.

Another daughter, Cheryl Brown Henderson, is president of the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research, which sponsored the event along with the national historic site and Washburn University of Topeka.

"By lifting up those who need us and by tearing down the walls that divide us, we can truly honor the legacy of Brown versus the Board of Education," Holder said.

Published: Thu, May 19, 2011