TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — First lady Michelle Obama told Kansas high school graduates Friday that young people who’ve 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.”
Obama spoke to several thousand students and parents at an event honoring high school graduates in Topeka, the state capital. Her speech came the day before the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in the Brown case, which takes its title from a federal lawsuit filed by parents in Topeka.
She noted that her special assistant, Kristen Jarvis, is the grandniece of Lucinda Todd, a leader with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Topeka in the 1940s and 1950s, the first parent to sign onto 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 on May 17, 1954.
The all-black elementary school 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 come 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.”
The first lady spoke at the ceremony honoring the graduates after meeting with 11 high school students participating in a federally funded program that prepares poor children and children in foster care for higher education. She sat in a circle with them in a room at the Brown site.
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 Saturday during a combined graduation ceremony for five schools, but some parents and students were worried the arena for the speech wouldn’t be large enough to accommodate all the students’ family members.
“We are grateful that she changed her schedule,” said Sue Cochran, whose son, Justin, is graduating from Topeka West High School, adding that the first lady’s visit was an honor.
Democratic President Barack Obama received just 38 percent of the vote in Republican-leaning Kansas in 2012, and conservative Republicans have boosted their fortunes by running against him and the federal health care overhaul he championed.
Yet former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, also a former governor, received loud cheers when introduced, while the applause and cheers for Republican Gov. Sam Brownback were matched by booing from some in the crowd.
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.”