May 16th, 2014
10:45 PM ET
9 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.

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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. christian1269

    It's time for whites to sell out their race and help blacks take property, assets and money from whites and give it to blacks. Nothing less is acceptable. Michelle Obama

    May 17, 2014 07:03 pm at 7:03 pm |
  2. yolanda

    So @ Don, if anyone disagrees with M. Obama they are racist? Lame on your part, not to mention totally without merit. This First Family is in a unique position to bring the races together and yet they continue to exacerbate the problem. When (if ever) has the president mentioned his "white" heritage and how he understands the issue from both perspectives. A missed opportunity for the USA. Al Sharpton a guest at State dinners. Please spare me your indignation. It is transparently hollow.

    May 17, 2014 07:31 pm at 7:31 pm |
  3. Chuck

    Once again Michelle Obama proves that she is no more than just the color of her skin.

    May 17, 2014 07:51 pm at 7:51 pm |
  4. Beanne

    What?...all she talked about was race.....what ever happened to personal responsibility...she is such a dam racist i wish she would just go away.

    May 17, 2014 08:46 pm at 8:46 pm |
  5. Etham Frome

    Well...she's a lawyer so it's always someone else at fault.

    May 17, 2014 10:16 pm at 10:16 pm |

    @Don dont you hate what your own police D does to 2 your own PPl. ?

    May 17, 2014 11:01 pm at 11:01 pm |

    Look left fingers talk to the hand n0w : )

    May 17, 2014 11:06 pm at 11:06 pm |
  8. joeyb

    Why did Mrs. Obama segregate the cheese burger and french fries from lunch rooms? How dare her discriminate against junk food.

    May 18, 2014 01:17 am at 1:17 am |
  9. Sam

    A truly fantastic and genuine human being, Mrs Obama is one of the most honest and inspiring public figures ever. I love her integrity, candor, passion and ability to speak to the heart of any issue. She's clear and fearless. I absolutely love and respect her very much.

    May 18, 2014 03:35 am at 3:35 am |
  10. binar


    May 18, 2014 08:36 am at 8:36 am |
  11. sly

    Cleveland School district received approx 5000 more per student then others in the state and place 16th. It is not just about money. Parents that don't read to their kids or help them with their homework is part of the problem. The other part is students who just don't want to learn.

    Busing is a tool to help the teacher's union. They could bus kids that score higher on test to failing schools so the school doesn't look as bad. It is never about the kids. The kids get used by the agenda of adults.

    May 18, 2014 09:01 am at 9:01 am |
  12. Lizzie

    When someone sends their kids to private school and the first thing they do is vote to renig the vouchers so their kids don't have to go to school with average folks kids then the better not say anything. Pres.Obamas grandparents moved to Hawaii before he was born, or am I to understand that Kansas is racist to Caucasian.
    Yet she and the President got into Harvard because of affirmative action, graduated with a law degree and gave up their law licenses before he became President, WHY.

    May 18, 2014 09:18 am at 9:18 am |
  13. sean

    When I went to college 25 years ago the school (Cal Poly) was pretty much exclusively white. Don't know exact stats, but now when we go down and walk around campus I see more asian and indian ethnicity than caucasion, still hardly any blacks. Michellle laments the fact that kids are going to school with "people that look like them". With all the laws and resources that have been spent over the years to try to give a hand up to people that "look like her", whose responsibility is it that the "ethnic mix" is what it is?

    May 18, 2014 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |

    Tsk. Tsk. So many angry, old, white people posting on this thread. Get over yourselves. Your generation will soon be no more. Have a nice rest of your miserable lives.

    May 18, 2014 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  15. yeahright

    Yet she and the President got into Harvard because of affirmative action, graduated with a law degree and gave up their law licenses before he became President, WHY.

    Wrong, wrong and wrong.

    The Obama's still have law licenses which are inactive, which is a normal procedure for a lawyer not actively practicing law. As far as affirmative action, that is pure Limbaugh hogwash. Did W get into Yale because of affirmative action, because he certainly didn't have the grades. Obama graduated magna c. laude. Look it up.

    May 18, 2014 03:46 pm at 3:46 pm |
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