On the eve of the 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case that outlawed racial segregation in American schools, First Lady Michelle Obama marked the progress America has made while celebrating the graduating high school seniors in the town where the case began.
"I think it's fitting that we're celebrating this historic Supreme Court case tonight, not just because Brown started right here in Topeka or because Brown's 60th anniversary is tomorrow, but because I believe that all of you -- our soon-to-be-graduates -- you all are the living, breathing legacy of this case," the first lady said during remarks to Topeka high schools at "Senior Recognition Day" Friday evening.
"Maybe your ancestors have been here in Kansas for centuries, or maybe like mine they came to this country in chains, or maybe your family just arrived here in search of a better life," she said. "But no matter how you got here, you have arrived at this day together."
In a speech that both reflected on the past and looked toward the future, the first lady acknowledged the advancements of the past six decades.
"The fact is that your experience here in Topeka would have been unimaginable back in 1954," she told the students. "When Brown v. Board of Education first went to the Supreme Court, this would not be possible."
"You all take the diversity you're surrounded by for granted. You probably don't even notice it," she continued, reflecting on how society has changed in the years since the ruling. "And that's understandable, given the country you have grown up in: with a woman Governor, a Latina Supreme Court Justice, a black President."
"Maybe your ancestors have been here in Kansas for centuries, 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."'
She mentioned some of the contentious stories to make headlines in recent months, from the interracial family in a Cheerios ad that drew backlash to openly gay sports figures like Michael Sam and Jason Collins, noting how non-controversial the stories must seem to someone of the students' generation.
"When folks made a big deal about Jason Collins and Michael Sam coming out as gay a lot of kids in your generation thought, 'So what? What is the issue here?'" she said to cheers from the audience.
But she also spoke of the ways in which progress must still be made across the country.
"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," she said. "So today, by some measures, our schools are as segregated as they were back when Dr. King gave his final speech. As a result, many young people in America are going to school largely with kids who look just like them."
"And too often," she continued, "those schools aren't equal, especially ones attended by students of color which too often lag behind, with crumbling classrooms and less experienced teachers."
"The truth is that Brown vs. Board of Education isn't just about our history, it's about our future," she said, encouraging the students to commit to supporting the spirit of the Brown v. Board ruling in their lives.
"No matter what you do, the point is to never be afraid to talk about these issues, particularly the issue of race, because even today, we still struggle to do that," she said. "This issue is so sensitive, so complicated, so bound up with a painful history, and 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."
The first lady also reflected on how the ruling connected to both her life and her husband's.
"The truth is that Brown vs. Board of Education isn't just about our history, it's about our future."'
"I think about my mother who, as a little girl, went to segregated schools in Chicago and felt the sting of discrimination," she said. "I think about my husband's grandparents, white folks born and raised right here in Kansas, products themselves of segregation, good, honest people who helped raise their bi-racial grandson, ignoring those who would criticize that child's very existence."
President Obama marked the anniversary Friday with a reception at the White House in which he met with relatives of the plaintiffs from the original case. He called the Supreme Court's ruling "the first major step in dismantling the 'separate but equal' doctrine that justified Jim Crow."
"As we commemorate this historic anniversary, we recommit ourselves to the long struggle to stamp out bigotry and racism in all their forms," he said in a statement released Friday. "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."
Attorney General Eric Holder weighed in on the important anniversary as well, mentioning his own very personal connection to the desegregation efforts that followed the Brown v. Board ruling -- his sister-in-law Vivian Malone who joined the civil rights battle when she attempted to register for classes at the University of Alabama in 1963.
"But thanks to Brown – and to the developments that followed – on the day when Vivian and her classmate James Hood walked into that university, they were protected not only by the power of their convictions; not only by the strength of the National Guard and the authority of the United States Department of Justice; but by the force of binding law," he said.
"This was the sea change that Brown v. Board of Education signaled, and this was the progress it made possible," he continued. "It did not instantaneously – or painlessly – tear down the walls that divided so much of the nation, but it did unlock the gates."
The commemoration of the anniversary will continue throughout the weekend, with the American Federation of Teachers rallying with Lucinda Noches Talbert, the granddaughter of plaintiff Lucinda Todd.
But as AFT President Randi Weingarten said, the event is not nearly a celebration, but also a call to action to continue the efforts to greater equality.
“Today’s moral imperative is to give our kids a great public education system by fixing — not closing — neighborhood public schools,” Weingarten said in a statement. “All kids need safe, welcoming neighborhood schools that offer an engaging, well-rounded curriculum that includes art and music, expanded early childhood education programs, resources and support for teachers, and wraparound services provided in schools to help disadvantaged kids and families overcome the effects of poverty.”