First lady Michelle Obama challenges Topeka graduates to fight inequality

05/16/2014 9:55 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

Our water fountains aren’t segregated.

Our movie theaters aren’t segregated.

And our schools aren’t segregated.

But in many ways we are still a separate-but-equal country, first lady Michelle Obama told graduating seniors from five Topeka high schools Friday night.

Celebrating the 60th anniversary of the historic Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregated schools, Obama reminded the city where the case originated that the country is still racially divided — although much more subtly than in the 1950s.

“Our laws may no longer separate us based on our skin color, but there’s nothing in our constitution that says we have to eat together in the lunchroom or live together in the same neighborhoods,” Obama told a full house at the 8,000-seat Kansas Expocentre.

“There’s no court case against believing in stereotypes or thinking that certain kinds of hateful jokes or comments are funny.”

The visit was not without controversy.

The first lady had accepted the Topeka School District’s invitation to address a combined graduation of the high schools. But that set off protests from parents who thought her appearance would limit seating for the graduation. Others worried that graduation could be politicized.

The district worked out a compromise that allowed Obama to speak Friday at a senior recognition ceremony.

Although the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was handed down 60 years ago Saturday, Obama said that schools, by some measures, are as segregated today as they were then.

Many school districts, she said, are withdrawing efforts to integrate their students, and communities are becoming less diverse as people flee cities for the suburbs.

“As a result, many young people in America are going to school with kids who look just like them,” Obama said. “And 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 suggested that segregation in American schools can be seen in how students cluster at separate lunch tables or isolate themselves in different clubs or activities.

“They never really reach beyond their own circles.”

The tendency toward separation isn’t limited to the classroom, she said.

“Too many folks are still stopped on the street because of the color of their skin, or they’re made to feel unwelcome because of where they’re from, or they’re bullied because of who they love.”

The Brown decision, she said, isn’t about the past. It’s about the future.

She called on students to battle deep-seated prejudices that persist years after the civil rights movement swept across the country.

“Graduates, it’s up to all of you to lead the way and drag my generation and your grandparents’ generation along with you,” she said.

“When you meet folks who think they know all the answers because they’ve never heard any other viewpoints, it’s up to you to help them see things differently.”

The good news, she said, is that today’s students won’t need a Supreme Court decision to enforce equality. Nevertheless, she cautioned that the road ahead will be hard.

“I’m not going to lie to you. This won’t be easy,” she said. “You might have to ruffle a few feathers, and folks might not always like what you have to say.

“So, graduates, that is your mission: to make sure all those voices are heard, to make sure everyone in this country has a chance to contribute.”

Students were moved by the speech, especially Lauren Sherwood, who introduced Obama on Friday night.

“It’s absolutely insane. I can’t believe it just happened,” the Topeka High School student said afterward. “It will be hard for anything else in my life to top this.”

Sherwood called the address “everything you could have hoped for in a graduation speech, plus more.”

“I had a little tear in my eye because it was just beautiful,” she said.

Many were glad to see Obama emphasize the significance of the Brown case and how it contributed to the diversity that students see today. Some felt the need to heed her call to change outdated views.

“It did really speak to us,” said Topeka West High School student Onree Spencer. “Even though past generations are hanging on to what they were taught, we need to be able to teach them about our generation.”

To reach Brad Cooper, call 816-234-7724 or send email to bcooper@kcstar.com.

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