(CNN) – Sixty years after the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education challenged segregation in Topeka, Kansas, and changed the makeup of American classrooms forever, first lady Michelle Obama looked out at a crowd of Topeka’s soon-to-be high school graduates and saw its “living, breathing legacy.”
In 1954, Oliver Brown, an African-American welder and assistant pastor, brought the case against the Topeka Board of Education for not allowing his 9-year-old daughter, Linda, to attend Sumner Elementary School, an all-white school near the family’s home. Friday night in Topeka, the nation’s first African-American first lady looked out at the diverse faces of soon-to-be graduates and said they reminded her of her own daughters.
“Graduates, it is clear that some of the most important parts of your education have come not just from your classes but from your classmates,” said Obama. “Ultimately, that was the hope and dream of Brown,” Obama said, speaking at a “Senior Appreciation Day” event attended by students, families and faculty of area schools.
Follow @politicalticker Follow @CassieSpodak
The speech followed the all-too-familiar script of commencement speeches – with the first lady making appropriate pop culture references that received wild applause.
She praised the diversity many of the students saw in media today, from ethnic diversity in TV shows like the “The Walking Dead,” to the NFL recently drafting openly-gay football player Michael Sam.
However, Obama also highlighted the areas where she sees diversity lacking, “Many districts in this country have actually pulled back on efforts to integrate their schools and many communities have become less diverse as folks have moved from cities to suburbs.”
“Many young people in America are going to school largely with kids who look just like them,” Obama said. “Too often, those schools aren’t equal, especially ones attended by students of color, which too often lag behind, with crumbling classrooms and less experienced teachers.”
Obama called on the students to speak up - in their classrooms and with their families, as well as in the future as they attend college, start jobs and begin families. She challenged them to never shy away from discussing prejudice.
“We need your generation to help us break through - we need all of you to ask the hard questions and have the honest conversations because that is the only way we will heal the wounds of the past and move forward to a better future.”
She warned that this is not easy, “There will be times when you’ll get frustrated or discouraged,” Obama said. “But whenever I start to feel that way, I just take a step back and remind myself of all the progress I’ve seen in my short lifetime.”
Michelle Obama spoke of triumph over the “painful history” of segregation and finding inspiration in those close by – for the first lady that meant she didn’t have to look far.
She reflected on her own family’s past: a mother who grew up in Chicago’s segregated schools and ancestors who were slaves.
She told her husband’s story and that of his grandparents, a white couple that lived in a segregated Kansas.
“Good, honest people who helped raise their biracial grandson, ignoring those who would criticize that child’s very existence. And then I think about how that child grew up to be the President of the United States.”
“Every day,” Obama said, “You have that same power to choose our better history - by opening your hearts and minds, by speaking up for what you know is right.”