On this day in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Oliver Brown et al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka that school segregation violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Chief Justice Earl Warren managed to secure a unanimous decision, but at the time, national sentiment on the issue was far from unanimous.
In May of 1961, four short months after the violent reception received by Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter on their enrollment at UGA, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy gave the Law Day Address at the university.
Kennedy was well aware of the events of the preceding months (mentioning the two students by name in his speech), the tension on campus, and that he was addressing an audience still largely hostile to the idea of racial integration, but he didn’t shy away from the topic.
Within the context of civil rights, he considered it one of the three “major areas of difficulty…that sap our national strength, that weaken our people, that require our immediate attention.” Reminding his audience that the world was watching, he made an appeal to reason, respect for the law, and a broader vision of the future:
For on this generation of Americans falls the full burden of proving to the world that we — we really mean when we say — we really mean it when we say that all men are created free and equal before the law. All of us might wish at times that we lived in a more tranquil world but we don’t. And if our times are difficult and perplexing, so are they challenging and filled with opportunity. To the South, perhaps more than any other section of the country, has been given the opportunity and the challenge and the responsibility of demonstrating America at its greatest — at its full potential of liberty under law.
Read/listen to the rest of Robert F. Kennedy’s speech.
Learn more about Brown v. Board of Education