Bush and Kerry Mark '54 Ruling
Nation 'Strives to Do Right,' President Says
By Mike Allen and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 18, 2004; Page A03
TOPEKA, Kan., May 17 -- President Bush saluted the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation ruling here Monday with a tribute to America as "a nation that strives to do right," while Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) hailed half a century of racial progress but said the nation continues to fail black and Hispanic citizens.
The two presidential rivals spoke at separate events commemorating the 1954 decision, in which a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that the doctrine of "separate but equal" education for blacks and whites was unconstitutional. The decision triggered massive resistance in the South but marked the beginning of a civil rights movement that led to anti-discrimination laws in public accommodations, voting rights, housing and employment.
Bush spoke at the grand opening for a historic site at the two-story brick Monroe Elementary School, one of the four segregated elementary schools that black children in Topeka were forced to attend in 1954.
"America has yet to reach the high calling of its own ideals, and yet we are a nation that strives to do right," Bush said in a sunny yard, with the doors of the 78-year-old school behind him. "We remember with gratitude the good souls who saw a great wrong, and stood their ground, and won their case."
Kerry, appearing six blocks away at the Kansas Capitol just over four hours earlier, said that defending the progress achieved since Brown is only part of the challenge of fulfilling the promise of the decision. The presumptive Democratic nominee said that minorities still suffer higher rates of poverty and joblessness than whites, and that too many school systems in America "are separate and unequal."
"Brown began to tear down the walls of inequality," he said. "The next great challenge is to put up a ladder of opportunity for all."
Neither Bush nor Kerry mentioned the day's huge development in another civil rights battle -- the issuance in Massachusetts of the first marriage licenses to gay couples. Bush later issued a statement reaffirming his support for a constitutional amendment barring gay marriage.
Monday's events marked the first time Bush and Kerry had traveled to the same place to talk about the same subject since the presidential campaign opened. Even though advisers to both candidates described the appearances as non-political, there was an undercurrent of politics throughout the day.
Neither candidate mentioned the other directly in his speech, although Kerry criticized the administration's policies. Kerry spoke at an event organized by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) that was dominated by Democrats after several Republicans, including the president, turned down invitations to participate, according to her spokeswoman, Nicole Corcoran.
Kerry shared the stage with many national leaders of the civil rights movement, some of whom had been invited to attend the later event with the president but chose to appear with Kerry, said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
The back-to-back speeches by the rival candidates gave a preview of face-offs to come. Bush remains intent on projecting optimism, despite polls showing that a majority of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, and Kerry is jumping into the role of challenger by highlighting conditions he would strive to fix.
Bush, who won less than 10 percent of the African American vote in 2000, received a friendly reception from the crowd at his event. He left the podium with a big wave and his arm around Cheryl Brown Henderson, president of the Brown Foundation and one of three daughters of the late Oliver Brown, whose lawsuit with 12 other families culminated in the historic ruling. She also spoke at the morning event at the Capitol.
Bush was 7 and Kerry was 10 when the ruling was handed down. Both said it changed America forever. "For the better," Bush added. From there, their emphases diverged.
Bush, who spoke for 12 minutes, noted that "the habits of racism in America" persist. "The habits of respect must be taught to every generation," he said. "Laws against racial discrimination must be vigorously enforced in education and housing and hiring and public accommodations."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company