Acceptance of National Equal Justice Award, November 6, 2003

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Acceptance of National Equal Justice Award

NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

Jeffrey S. Lehman

November 6, 2003


Twenty years ago, when I was a law clerk at the Supreme Court, I had the privilege of enjoying several conversations with Justice Thurgood Marshall.  In those conversations, Justice Marshall gave me the precious gift of ideas – ideas about patience and persistence that I have quoted in my speaking and writing as a dean and as a president.  For me to find myself standing here tonight, being honored in this way by the Fund, before all of you, and most especially before Mrs. Marshall, is a moment that I will treasure for the rest of my life.

I am profoundly grateful to hundreds of people who invested hundreds of thousands of hours to work with us to defend our policy, and I want to single out a few in addition to those being honored tonight:

I want to recognize the students at the University of Michigan Law School who, on the day after the trial judge ruled against us, spontaneously joined together, lifted every voice, and proclaimed publicly that they had a compelling interest in living and studying at a racially integrated law school.

I want to recognize the faculty and senior administrators of the Law School who never flinched in the face of the attacks on our academic integrity and never questioned the appropriateness of our decision to press forward with a full and public defense of our policy.

I want to recognize the two exceptionally gifted attorneys who led our outside legal team:

John Payton, for his skill and devotion to the project of assembling a court record that powerfully demonstrated the intellectual and legal basis for our admissions policy. 

And Maureen Mahoney, for her skill in showing the Supreme Court the good faith with which we implemented that policy.

And I want to recognize my wife Kathy, whose friendship and encouragement supported me from the day that the plaintiffs first charged that we were acting inappropriately right through the day that the Supreme Court affirmed our position as law abiding representatives of mainstream America.

We need affirmative action in higher education today because we need to continue to build a just and integrated society.  We have made enormous progress in that struggle.  But that progress does not come without effort.  In America today we must continue to act affirmatively in order to keep moving forward.

Through this litigation we successfully defended our ability to employ affirmative action to ensure meaningful integration at our colleges and universities.  But we have much more left to do.  We must complete the journey towards becoming a society where affirmative action is unnecessary. 

What does that mean?  That means becoming a society where residential segregation, school isolation, socioeconomic disadvantage, and crippling racial stereotypes are things of the past.  It means becoming a society where genuine opportunity within an open and integrated community is the true birthright of every child. 

The efforts of the past six years constituted another important step on that journey.  The remaining steps will be every bit as difficult.  Inspired by the legacy of Justice Marshall, I know that we can take those steps together and complete that journey, speedily, in our days.