In Kansas, first lady Michelle Obama urges graduating students to embrace diversity

First Lady Michelle Obama marked the 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision that ended school desegregation in a speech to graduating seniors in Topeka, Kansas on Friday. (Reuters)

Speaking on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, first lady Michelle Obama challenged high school seniors Friday to stand up to prejudice when they see it and not be afraid to talk about race.

Addressing graduating high school students in Topeka, Kan., where the 1954 Supreme Court decision desegregated the city’s schools, Obama said many young people today find it hard to imagine segregation and may not appreciate the changes wrought by the ruling.

Pointing to examples including a recent controversy over a cereal commercial featuring a biracial couple, Obama said, “You all take the diversity you’re surrounded by for granted — you probably don’t even notice it.”

But Obama also warned students that race-based inequality and racism still exist and said school districts have “pulled back” on efforts to integrate even as schools are becoming less diverse.

“So today, by some measures, our schools are as segregated as they were back when Dr. King gave his final speech,” she said. “As a result, many young people in America are going to school largely with kids who look just like them.”

Obama changed the date of her speech to assuage concerns that her appearance would limit the number of tickets family members of graduates could obtain.

As the first lady traveled to Topeka, her husband met at the White House Friday with families of the plaintiffs in the Brown case and members of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

President Obama said in a statement that Brown was the “first major step in dismantling the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine that justified Jim Crow” laws in the South. He also said the nation must honor the legacy of those who fought for civil rights by taking up their mantle.

“As we commemorate this historic anniversary, we recommit ourselves to the long struggle to stamp out bigotry and racism in all their forms,” Obama said. “We reaffirm our belief that all children deserve an education worthy of their promise. And we remember that change did not come overnight — that it took many years and a nationwide movement to fully realize the dream of civil rights for all of God’s children.”

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the defense fund, said Obama spoke about the importance of Brown in his own life and acknowledged the difficult work and dedication of the plaintiffs and the lawyers who litigated the case.

In her evening address in Kansas, Michelle Obama urged young people to challenge racism when they encounter it and to do all they can to surround themselves with diversity.

“And that’s really my challenge to all of you today as you go forth — when you encounter folks who still hold the old prejudices because they’ve only been around folks like themselves, 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,” she said.

She told students to “break through” barriers to talking honestly about race.

“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 said.

Obama reminded students of her own family’s story — how her mother went to segregated schools in Chicago and “felt the sting of discrimination.” President Obama’s Kansan grandparents raised their biracial grandson and ignored those who “would criticize that child’s very existence,” she said, noting that the boy is now president and the little girl who went to segregated schools is helping raise her granddaughters in the White House.

Michelle Obama also marveled at the diversity in the arena.

“Maybe your ancestors have been here in Kansas for centuries,” she said. “Or maybe like mine they came to this country in chains. Or maybe your family just arrived here in search of a better life. But no matter how you got here, you have arrived at this day together.”

Obama said it is fitting to celebrate the Brown ruling not because of the anniversary or location, but because the soon-to-be graduates are “the living, breathing legacy of this case.”

Obama also visited the Brown v. Board of Education national historic site and spoke with high school students in a program for at-risk college-bound students Friday afternoon.

Katie Zezima covers the White House for Post Politics and The Fix.
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