TOPEKA, Kan. – First lady Michelle Obama told Kansas high school graduates Friday that young people who have grown up with diversity must lead a national fight against prejudice and discrimination because after six decades, the Brown v. Board of Education ruling against school segregation is still being decided every single day.
Meanwhile, her husband marked the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision by recommitting to the long struggle to stamp out bigotry and racism in all their forms, and he met in the White House East Room with families of the plaintiffs in the historic case.
Michelle Obama addressed several thousand students and parents in Topeka, where parents filed a federal lawsuit that led to the 1954 decision.
She noted that her special assistant, Kristen Jarvis, is the grand-niece of Lucinda Todd, a leader with the NAACP in Topeka in the 1940s and 1950s, the first parent to sign on to the lawsuit challenging the city’s segregated schools. She said Todd, who died in 1996, is an example of people who choose our better history.
Every day, you have the power to choose our better history – by opening your hearts and minds, by speaking up for what you know is right, by sharing the lessons of Brown versus Board of Education, the lessons you learned right here in Topeka, wherever you go for the rest of your lives, Obama said.
The parents who filed the Topeka lawsuit in 1951 were recruited by local NAACP leaders and included Oliver Brown, whose daughter was not allowed to enroll in an all-white elementary school near their home. The U.S. Supreme Court combined the Kansas case with others from Delaware, South Carolina and Virginia, ruling May 17, 1954.
The all-black elementary school that Brown’s daughter was forced to attend is now a national park site dedicated to the history of the Brown case and the civil rights movement.
Obama said that despite the progress the Brown decision represented, some school districts have pulled back on efforts integrate their schools and communities have become less diverse as residents move from cities to suburbs.
We know that today in America, too many folks are still stopped on the street because of the color of their skin, or they’re made to feel unwelcome because of where they come from, or they’re bullied because of who they love, she said.
She added: As you go forth, when you encounter folks who still hold the old prejudices because they’ve only been around folks like themselves, when you meet folks who think they know all the answers because they’ve never heard any other viewpoints, it’s up to you to help them see things differently.
Obama said young people who’ve grown up with diversity should speak up when family members make insensitive remarks and push for diversity in the organizations and companies they join.
The truth is that Brown versus Board of Ed isn’t just about our history, it’s about our future, she said. Because while the case was handed down 60 years ago, Brown is still being decided every single day – not just in our courts and schools, but in how we live our lives.
Her events Friday were scheduled after the initial announcement of her trip last month stirred criticism in the Kansas capital. She’d initially planned to speak today during a graduation ceremony, but some parents and students were worried the arena for the speech wouldn’t be large enough.
At the White House, President Barack Obama met with the families of attorneys Jack Greenberg and William Coleman. Greenberg argued the case; Coleman was a leading legal strategist.
The president said in a statement that the Brown decision was the first major step in dismantling the separate but equal’ doctrine that justified Jim Crow, the racial segregation laws that were in place at the state and local level across the South.
As we commemorate this historic anniversary, we recommit ourselves to the long struggle to stamp out bigotry and racism in all their forms, Obama said.
We reaffirm our belief that all children deserve an education worthy of their promise. And we remember that change did not come overnight, that it took many years and a nationwide movement to fully realize the dream of civil rights for all of God’s children.
Obama pledged to never forget the men, women and children who took extraordinary risks in order to make our country more fair and more free.
Today, it falls on us to honor their legacy by taking our place in their march and doing our part to perfect the union we love, he said.