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. Slappi

    Racist woman.

    May 17, 2014 02:35 pm at 2:35 pm |
  2. Paul

    So, about those Historically Black Colleges, going to integrate those?

    May 17, 2014 02:35 pm at 2:35 pm |
  3. Nameobamaindonesian

    The first fruitcake president we all know your in the closet barry

    May 17, 2014 02:39 pm at 2:39 pm |
  4. BigSir

    Now days, students make the school. Bad students – bad schools. The school districts redraw the lines to change the racial-economic mix, only forcing parents to move.

    May 17, 2014 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  5. thatdragondude

    Wes and others here obviously either don't live in southern rural areas where schools may not technically be "segregated" but they might as well be. I attended J.J. Kelly High School in Wise, Virginia. Class of 2000 only had ONE African American student who was so intimidated by others in the school, he told everyone he was Hawaiian to attempt to distance himself from the blatant racism that was present there. 14 years later, it hasn't changed much. Just a month ago there was an incident where students from the newly consolidated schools were making racist twitter accounts and using racial epithets to bully and intimidate another school in the region where there is a more diverse group of students. You people who say that Obama or the First Lady are being racist are either blind or stupid, I can't figure out which, probably a bit of both.

    May 17, 2014 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  6. ja

    The charter school craze has diminished brown vs board, across America, in Memphis TN, the state legislature voted for municipal schools, to form in surrounding suburbs, to avoid brown v board results in 2012, the education matter is a direct result from other social ills that is infinite

    May 17, 2014 03:06 pm at 3:06 pm |
  7. dave

    Unfortunately education is one of those problems that will never be solved. The problem is we don't have equal funding for schools, we don't have equal funding because of local control We will never get rid of local control. We don't have year around schools, so naturally all education systems that go to school for a longer school year beat the US students. We still have the old system based upon eveyone is a farmer so the kids are needed for harvest and to work in th fields. Even if we drop to the #20 economy in the World, or lower, we would still ride out our proven failed education system, it's just our nature The media helps that by pouring out contnuous propaganda

    May 17, 2014 03:14 pm at 3:14 pm |
  8. Jerry Okamura

    What is the purpose of an education? If you are in a school, where the student does not achieve the primary goal of school, does it matter how desegregated the school is?

    May 17, 2014 03:19 pm at 3:19 pm |
  9. Anonymous

    Biggest racist in the country. Just what does nit take to make her happy. Hate the grads had to be subjected to her racism on what should have been a speech about their future.

    May 17, 2014 03:45 pm at 3:45 pm |
  10. Etham Frome

    I wish she would just go away.

    May 17, 2014 03:48 pm at 3:48 pm |
  11. Len

    The comments here show why this country has lost its moral compass. We no longer care for people who are in need. We no longer care for education, we no longer care for keeping our planet clean and healthy for future generations, we no longer care the health of women, and we no longer care for our country to be one.
    We have become a society of haters and a society who really does not believe in the word of Jesus. We are haters and ask yourself why?

    May 17, 2014 04:02 pm at 4:02 pm |
  12. HeyHey

    Yes, because some families sacrifice to move into good school districts. Oh the shame...

    May 17, 2014 04:11 pm at 4:11 pm |
  13. Len

    Hey, Hey

    And your point is?

    May 17, 2014 04:24 pm at 4:24 pm |
  14. Bill Davis

    Her kids do not attend those lower class schools

    May 17, 2014 04:26 pm at 4:26 pm |
  15. Wake Up People! Many Rivers to cross.....

    Wow. You people just don't get it do you? She's telling the truth but apparently truth hurts. Thanks for showing your true colors.

    We love you Mrs. Obama! Best FLOTUS in my lifetime!

    May 17, 2014 04:28 pm at 4:28 pm |
  16. ES

    It is not a race issue, it is values issue. Blacks on average don't value education. Hispanics got the same problem. And "Hispanic" is not a race, it is a cultural identification. So, stop making this into a racial issue.

    May 17, 2014 04:34 pm at 4:34 pm |
  17. Anonymous

    As long as NAACP exist than racism will continue in the USA.

    May 17, 2014 04:44 pm at 4:44 pm |
  18. don in albuquerque

    Only two stories to post too today. One about black people, one about brown people. And the hate is almost palpable.

    May 17, 2014 04:44 pm at 4:44 pm |
  19. so zo

    Michelle Obama needs to look no further than her husbands' policy on school 'reform' and his secretary of ed Arne Duncan for the dangerous movement backwards. The well funded demise of public education in the wake of the privatization bears responsibility. The fact that our top democrats are burying their heads in the sand leaves families who believe in community and neighborhood schools shaking our heads. There is hope that Hilary will do better.

    May 17, 2014 04:46 pm at 4:46 pm |
  20. PoliticiansREvil

    Schools are too often unequal because of teacher's unions and liberal PC BS that cares more for PC than education. Most of the inequality in this nation is due to democrats.

    May 17, 2014 04:47 pm at 4:47 pm |
  21. Jeff

    School's should NOT be equal. They should be motivation to work hard so you can live in a good zip code with a great school system.

    May 17, 2014 04:47 pm at 4:47 pm |
  22. racialvictim

    segregation rules do not apply if the kid being kept out of classes and told which restroom to use is white. I have a letter telling my son he can not go to some of his classes and he can only use the nurse's restroom. This is his punishment for reporting every time he or other white kids were threatened or assaulted in his elementary school. No one in the state or federal government would help us so we were forced to move to another state at triple our mortgage to get an equal education.

    May 17, 2014 04:56 pm at 4:56 pm |
  23. Sy DVooh

    Any school will lag behind other schools, if the student body of the school is made up mostly of students with low IQs.

    May 17, 2014 05:06 pm at 5:06 pm |
  24. Scientists first believed

    Scientists first believed they had successfully cloned a Palin voter. But upon further investigation, it was just an amoeba.

    May 17, 2014 05:13 pm at 5:13 pm |
  25. Chipster

    "So, about those Historically Black Colleges, going to integrate those?"
    News Flash: Historically Black Colleges have accepted non-Black students for decades. Some of them have more white students now than black. It's 2014, not 1954 so try to catch up.

    May 17, 2014 05:16 pm at 5:16 pm |
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