U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told members of Morgan State University's 2014 graduating class that because of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling 60 years ago that outlawed racially segregated public schools, "your generation will never know a world in which 'separate but equal' was the law of the land."
But the nation's first African-American attorney general also said that recent racially inflammatory comments made by public figures and commentators, while sparking outrage in the media and online, pale in comparison to "the more hidden, and more troubling, reality behind the headlines." He pointed to a U.S. Sentencing Commission report last year that described racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Holder delivered a 25-minute speech commemorating the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, in which the court unanimously declared state-enforced racial segregation in schools unconstitutional.
The decision reversed the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision that upheld racial segregation under a doctrine of "separate but equal," and it marked the Supreme Court's central role in shaping the nation's social and political fabric.
President Barack Obama issued a presidential proclamation on the anniversary of the Brown v. Board ruling Thursday.
Holder, 63, was sworn in as the 82nd U.S. attorney general in 2009. Morgan State, the state's largest historically black college, awarded him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree Saturday.
Holder's speech followed a commencement address by Calvin Butler, CEO of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. More than 900 students received degrees at Morgan State's 138th spring commencement Saturday.
The son of a Barbados immigrant father who enlisted in the military during World War II, Holder said he was 3 years old at the time of the Brown v. Board ruling and added, "My generation was the first to come of age in a post-Brown America.
"Of course, if that era seems like ancient history to you, that's only because your forebears … came together to make it ancient history," Brown told the graduates. "In the wake of Brown v. Board, people of all ages — and from every corner of our nation — were inspired and emboldened by the courage, the conviction, and the persistence of those who risked so much in the fight for freedom and justice."
Holder also pointed out the legacy of retired Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert Bell, who as a 16-year-old was arrested at a 1960 sit-in at a Baltimore restaurant that served only whites. He became the lead plaintiff in a Supreme Court case — Bell v. Maryland in 1964 — that led to the high court's consideration of whether the state could invoke trespassing laws to exclude African-Americans from public accommodations.
Holder told the graduates that the case "ultimately pushed this state — and the entire country — closer to desegregation. Chief Judge Bell's journey started right here in Baltimore. … He and his classmates rose to the greatest moral challenge of their time. And many of them once sat where you do today."
Holder said that public comments from prominent figures over the past few weeks and months were "jarring reminders of the discrimination that in some places has yet to be overcome."
Though Holder did not specifically name any person or incident, his comments come follow inflammatory statements from two figures that have made national headlines: Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who wondered aloud if blacks were better off during slavery, and Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who urged his girlfriend not to bring African-Americans to the NBA team's games.
"These incidents have received substantial media coverage. And they have rightly been condemned by leaders, commentators, and citizens from all backgrounds and walks of life," Holder said. "But we ought not find contentment in the fact that these high-profile expressions of outright bigotry seem atypical and were met with such swift condemnation.
"Because if we focus solely on these incidents — on outlandish statements that capture national attention and spark outrage on Facebook and Twitter — we are likely to miss the more hidden, and more troubling, reality behind the headlines."
Holder cited what he called "systemic and unwarranted racial disparities" in the criminal justice system, pointing to the study released last year by the Sentencing Commission indicating that in recent years African-American men have received sentences that are nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. Another report, he said, showed even harsher sentences for American Indians.
"The Justice Department is examining these and other disparities as we speak — and taking a variety of steps to ensure fair sentences that match the conduct at issue in individual cases," Holder said. "Like a growing chorus of lawmakers across the political spectrum, we recognize that disparate outcomes are not only shameful and unacceptable — they impede our ability to see that justice is done."