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. not about money or segregation

    Each public school is what the community makes of it. Strong schools are supported by active community members who participate in shaping the actions of the school board and teachers. I agree that all public schools should be structurally sound and have the basics in working order but fancy stuff like microscopes or other things are not necessary at that level. Pooled tax dollars should be spread over all public schools in the area for those things but money will never buy a student's interest in learning. Parents MUST value and push education or their children will fail. Money doesn't fix that and going to a "good school" doesn't fix that if the child doesn't want to learn.

    May 17, 2014 05:19 pm at 5:19 pm |
  2. david

    So white people have to be burdened with everyone else's low achieving kids.

    May 17, 2014 05:28 pm at 5:28 pm |
  3. Chipster

    It's terribly depressing to read some of these comments. The fear and hatred that has been born of efforts (sadly successful) to divide us with false, misleading and inflammatory fake media outlets whose only interest at all is in ratings because it translates into money. Just consider the insane emails that still make the rounds after being disproved long ago – yet, those who desperately want to be angry and fearful are still quick to believe any nonsense that makes them feel victimized. Example: As recently as this week, Laura Ingraham repeated the lie that Ambassador Steven's body was dragged through the streets and mutilated. She knows that is false (pants on fire false) yet she continues to use because she also knows her audience.

    May 17, 2014 05:32 pm at 5:32 pm |
  4. Jack Dawson

    Hypocrisy is talking about equal educational opportunities in public schools while sending your kids to a private school and having the taxpayers foot trips to Europe to broaden their education. Of course parents want their kids in good schools. That is why they go to charter schools or move to better districts. It is not nearly as much about race as it is about climate. Who willingly would send their children to a school full of kids who have little desire to learn and a ton of behavioral issues?

    May 17, 2014 05:32 pm at 5:32 pm |
  5. JiminNM

    In many respects, human beings are unequal. Get over it.

    May 17, 2014 05:37 pm at 5:37 pm |
  6. poseidon

    Donna Brazile beat the First Lady to the punch with the same speech. Looks like somebody released the libeal talking points on school education yesterday. I suppose we'll get to hear Pelosi roll out of her coffin and spout something about inequality in schools in the next day or so.

    May 17, 2014 05:38 pm at 5:38 pm |
  7. Burnz

    Just because a school board has stopped busing kids across towns in order to have "integrated schools" does not mean they are pulling back efforts.

    @PoliticiansAreEvil, can you flesh that out a bit? Maybe some specifics? Like how Democrats like to deny funding to under performing schools, increasing penalties for minor drug charges, starting costly wars that leave American lives broken... oh wait.

    May 17, 2014 05:42 pm at 5:42 pm |
  8. ThinkAgain - Don't like Congress? Get rid of the repub/tea bag majority.

    Wow, lots of haters posting here. Typical comment from ES: "It is not a race issue, it is values issue. Blacks on average don't value education."

    You probably also think that President Obama is too "professorial" when he speaks.

    I feel sorry for all the haters here; you all lead pathetic, narrow lives, filled with fear.

    May 17, 2014 05:43 pm at 5:43 pm |
  9. Jack Dawson

    All a school can give is an equal opportunity, the students choose to make the best of it or not. The sooner we get to the realization that students earn an education through effort, the better off we will be. Somewhere along the line we lost sight of the need for personal responsibility.

    May 17, 2014 05:44 pm at 5:44 pm |
  10. ThinkAgain - Don't like Congress? Get rid of the repub/tea bag majority.

    @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."

    Prove it. You're just another RWNJ troll who throws out "democrats are bad blah blah blah" without ever citing evidence. Makes you feel all superior, when in fact you don't have the stones to address our nation's challenges. You'd rather sit on the sidelines listening to Rush and his drug-addled spew.

    May 17, 2014 05:45 pm at 5:45 pm |
  11. American

    The world is not "equal." People are not "equal" in the literal sense. While I believe in giving each person an equal opportunity to define themselves, I don't believe it should come at the expense of limiting others. The idea that a black first lady would even insinuate that our system's current inequities result from some racist conspiracy is astounding.

    The problem with schools is that they're geared toward college, which is geared toward intellectual careers. Not everyone is equally intellectual, so most of the curriculum is useless to students. On top of that, parents in many minority communities are absent. Even the most "experienced" teacher would have a difficult time teaching a room full of angry, confused students about things they'll never need to know.

    May 17, 2014 05:46 pm at 5:46 pm |
  12. TommyTHall

    thatdragondude earlier said: "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."

    Dude ... WV's state population is 94 percent white! How many blacks did you expect to attend? Good grief.

    May 17, 2014 05:46 pm at 5:46 pm |
  13. charliesix

    Only in a liberal's mind the idea of equality continues to percolate. What is equality anyway? White, black, brown, yellow, skin color does not matter, someone is always more equal than others.

    May 17, 2014 05:54 pm at 5:54 pm |
  14. Liberty

    Is she serious?!?!?! This has nothing to do with segregation, it has everything to do with those who truly want an education, and those who don't give a flying fart in the, white, red, yellow, purple.....lack of not wanting to learn doesn't discriminate. UNFORTUNATELY, THIS WILL BE THE NEXT GENERATION!

    May 17, 2014 05:57 pm at 5:57 pm |
  15. Aristotle 120

    Thank God that her kids go to private school so they are spared all the horror!

    May 17, 2014 06:13 pm at 6:13 pm |
  16. John Schmoe

    Who died and made this lady queen of anything?
    Last time I checked, her position of "first lady" is unelected.
    Anyone who gives this woman any credence is nothing more than a useful idiot!
    "But its Michelle O, she's so super cool"- said the zombie

    May 17, 2014 06:15 pm at 6:15 pm |
  17. jeff

    If anything should be federated, it should be schools. Unfortunately they would screw that up also.

    May 17, 2014 06:19 pm at 6:19 pm |
  18. Jim

    Schools are directly related to the type of neighborhood they are in. Crappy neighborhood = crappy school.

    May 17, 2014 06:28 pm at 6:28 pm |
  19. repub

    In reading the comments it seems that the majority can't stand the way race is being portrayed by the WH and how relationships between black and white people have gotten much worse since Obama..why did you vote for him?? What do you expect? I

    May 17, 2014 06:29 pm at 6:29 pm |
  20. Nameobamaindonesian

    I hate the muslim obamas

    May 17, 2014 06:34 pm at 6:34 pm |
  21. clownshoes Mcgun from Kentucky

    The first lady is out of her mind. First off, does she think people are living in urban areas by choice? Of course not...who in their right mind would WANT their kids going to school in placed like Newark, NJ on prupose. The fact is, rents are cheaper in these areas and the need for car ownership is less than if you lived in the suburbs. And if you think these suburban schools would put up with even 1/4 of the crap the urban school teachers have to put up with (because they are "failing schools" often because the families don't care)...good luck with that one.

    "integrate" those schools with some of the knuckleheads from urban schools and watch the suburban schools test scores plummet and suburban parents be outraged because their kid has to go to school with kids like that.

    May 17, 2014 06:35 pm at 6:35 pm |
  22. Nameobamaindonesian

    I cant wait till the boytoy man loving man gay president is gone. What a miserable 8 years. The guys a fruit loop boy lover

    May 17, 2014 06:37 pm at 6:37 pm |
  23. batcow

    I don't mean to be mean. Has anyone ever read Michelle's college thesis. It's at 7th or 8th grade level. She spent two dozen pages telling the reader, that modern African Americans get along with white people easier today because they have more contact with them at school and work compared to eighty years ago.

    May 17, 2014 06:40 pm at 6:40 pm |
  24. teacher

    Schools are not unequal due to race. It is due to poverty. The discrepency in money spent per student between schools in poor neighborhoods vs schools in affluent neighborhoods is ridiculous. It will only change when two things occur. First, when every single dollar that goes towards education is put in one pool and then the same amount of money per student is given to every kid in this country. Second, when family values return, and parents start taking a bigger role in raising their kids better. And that is hard to do when you are barely scraping by, working 2 jobs, etc. Obama nailed it when he took office and said that black father's needed to get their act together and be better dads. Family is the key. Teaching manners, discipline, eating at the table, reading to their kids from day 1, helping them practice and checking their homework, being a good example, etc.

    May 17, 2014 07:00 pm at 7:00 pm |
  25. HM8432

    ...said the woman who sends her two daughters to an exclusive private school!

    May 17, 2014 07:02 pm at 7:02 pm |
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