May 16th, 2014
10:45 PM ET
4 years ago

60 years after Brown v. Board, Michelle Obama tells Topeka students they are its ‘legacy’

(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.

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.”

Filed under: Michelle Obama
soundoff (90 Responses)
  1. Thomas

    It's about poverty .

    Why won't anybody talk about over population ?

    May 17, 2014 01:21 am at 1:21 am |

    Why dont she just tell everbody they are dumb an blame someone for the others actions . Why dont they stop talking down white and black PPL all the time what is it the 0bamas want to do ? ? ? ?

    May 17, 2014 08:46 am at 8:46 am |
  3. Hector Slagg

    That's easy for you to say!

    May 17, 2014 09:14 am at 9:14 am |
  4. Randall

    Dear First Lady Michelle Obama,

    I am very disappointed in your comments about "unequal" schools which I can only assume you made to engage in demigogery and race baiting. You have a law degree from Harvard which means you are much smarter than I am. Yet I know that our schools are "unequal" due to the way schools are funded in this country. Since a disproportionate percentage of blacks live in poor neighborhoods where the taxes to fund schools are lower, it stands to reason that those schools will be "unequal" due to less funds. This holds true in poor white neighborhoods as well. You know all this yet you imply that some deliberate injustice is being done to blacks. Shame on you!

    May 17, 2014 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  5. don in albuquerque

    That didn't take long did it.

    May 17, 2014 11:28 am at 11:28 am |
  6. truth

    Sorry race obsessed first lady, but blacks are failing and falling further and further behind is the most well funded classrooms with the best teachers, and the contributions are too often poor attendance, disruptive behavior, and a dragging down of the "class performance".... .. they simply cannot compete with White and Asian students.

    May 17, 2014 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  7. Name

    She and anyone within the WH, and congress loose all sense of the real world REAL Americans live in. They should all be forced to live like us and not be given ridiculous salarys and benefits, how can one represent the people when one doesn't KNOW what the people are going through

    May 17, 2014 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  8. guest

    It is unfortunate that Mrs. Obama will never read these comments or ever know what the people really think. I can only imagine that after making the speech she was hurried off by the secret police, but if the ordinary people attending that meeting would have said anything they would have out of courtesy agreed with her.
    There are just as many black racist as there are white racist; even in the WH,

    May 17, 2014 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  9. Trudy Framm

    MO thinks she will be the next vice president..... She would like to be president but HC already has dibs on it....

    May 17, 2014 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  10. laloba solitaria

    Mrs. Obama is so out of touch with reality.

    May 17, 2014 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
  11. Victor

    "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.”

    Absolute nonsense from the First Lady. It's about their pathetic parents failing them. Not the school system.

    May 17, 2014 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
  12. truth hurts but reality bites

    The FACT of the matter is that as our schools have been taken over more and more by liberal/progressive/Democrats, the worse they have become. They are controlled by unions and liberal school boards that do things like arrest parents because they object to the obscene literature their young kids are given to read. Black students do great when taken out of these failed public school systems and given a good education, minus the liberal brain washing tripe. When they put in an environment where a few kids with discipline problems are not allowed to wreck the education of everybody.

    But the unions, liberals and Democrats fight free choice when it comes to schools because it endangers their indoctrination machine. It isn't about giving the kids a good education, it is about control, as it always is with liberals and Democrats.

    May 17, 2014 01:55 pm at 1:55 pm |
  13. Jim Jewell

    It's about poverty. Americans can frame everything about race, but it's only a part of the issue. Poverty of black families is the real issue but God forbid anyone talk about money. Monetary equality would solve SO, SO, SO, SO many of America's problems but it simply isn't discussed by either party. It's taboo.

    May 17, 2014 01:56 pm at 1:56 pm |
  14. troyison

    “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.

    That is indeed a correct statement.

    It's Impossible to cheat off a Caucasian or Asian students test paper if there are no Caucasian or Asian students there to cheat off of...

    May 17, 2014 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  15. Donna

    Race, race, race and more race... That is all the Obama's know how to do, divide people based on race. They have set back race relations decades with their blatantly racist and anti-white statements. We are starting to see the real Obamas. The Obamas that attended a racist church and said they weren't proud of this country. They have put on a good act for many years, put they cannot hide their stripes/racism any more.

    May 17, 2014 01:59 pm at 1:59 pm |
  16. blakenaustin

    Enough Michelle. Focus on the real issues facing this nation. We grow weary of the far left's dangerous and misguided agenda.

    May 17, 2014 02:03 pm at 2:03 pm |
  17. polishapple

    And don't think for a minute that the Revs Jackson and Sharpton and their minions don't get up every morning thanking the Lord that there are unequal schools, and that there always will be. That's how they've made their living, by banking in on the fact that there will always be poor blacks in poor neighborhoods with poor schools, and they're here to help the gummint address that and fix it, which they never would be able to. Not a bad way to make a living, huh?

    May 17, 2014 02:06 pm at 2:06 pm |
  18. kinaalvarez

    I totally agree with "truth". These students are failing simply because they do not know how to behave in classrooms across America and their disruptions and poor attendance ultimately holds them back. Mrs. Obama would be much wiser to advocate that parents not shy away from discussing their failures as parents when they have not taught their students how to sit down, how to respond respectfully, and overall how to be a part of a classroom without all the unnecessary disruptions.

    May 17, 2014 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  19. Bob T

    The old race card again. Give it a rest. Political posturing has no place in Graduation or commencement addresses.

    May 17, 2014 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  20. KingofCali

    All men are created equal, it's what you do after being created that makes us all different.

    May 17, 2014 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  21. Eve

    .....and she sends her daughters to "private " not public schools .....hmmm maybe she needs to lead by example

    May 17, 2014 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  22. DarthVaderMentor

    and that, Michelle, is a great example of a dramatic failure of government trying to force change on the people over 50 years. Things must be getting bad at the White House if they are using the race card this early.

    May 17, 2014 02:21 pm at 2:21 pm |
  23. columbus

    “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.”

    First of all, the condition of the school has very little to do with the quality of a student's education. Secondly, if teachers aren't performing to the minimum standard that parents expect, then it's upon them to go to school meetings, participating in government, getting out and using their vote to improve schools for their kids. Instead, the federal government's solution to inequality between urban and suburban education is to set a standard to the least common denominator. The effect has been to reduce our educational levels to that of third world nations.

    May 17, 2014 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  24. 2_indy1600

    I want to publicly apologize to Ms Obama for assuming she had any control over a State Dept that refused to "choose its' own history" in Nigeria with regards to Boko Haram. The gross negligence AGAIN of Hillary Rodham Clinton in refusing requests from FBI, CIA, DOJ and Lisa Monaco in the WH now, has reflected poorly on the Obamas, as has all or most of the Clinton decisions right down to Shinseki. Again, one has to wonder how the Obamas would have chosen their own history, had it not been for the corruption and TRUE WAR ON WOMEN that is the Clinton tag-team. Choose you own history, America. The First Lady is absolutely correct. God bless our president and his first lady

    May 17, 2014 02:33 pm at 2:33 pm |
  25. amazed

    The Democratic party would cease to exist if they didn't play up racism.

    Using a gardening analogy... Normal gardeners kill weeds when they see it. Democrats water and fertilize the weeds and then run on a platform to eradicate it.

    May 17, 2014 02:34 pm at 2:34 pm |
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