An important speech by First Lady Michelle Obama on an important topic. Well worth watching (including the key, albeit anger-inducing, lines: “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. So today, by some measures, our schools are as segregated as they were back when Dr. King gave his final speech.“)
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.
Just look around this arena.
Look at all the colors, cultures and faiths represented here tonight.
That’s why we’re celebrating here tonight because the fact is that your experience here in Topeka would have been unimaginable back in 1954, when Brown v. Board of Education went to the Supreme Court.
As you all know, back then, Topeka was a segregated city, so black folks and white folks had separate restaurants, separate hotels, separate movie theaters and swimming pools, and the elementary schools were segregated too.
So even though many black children lived just blocks away from the white schools in their neighborhoods, they had to take long bus rides to all-black schools across town.
Eventually, a group of black parents got tired of this arrangement, and they decided to do something about it.
Now, these were ordinary folks, most of them were not civil rights activists, and some of them were probably nervous about speaking up, worried they might cause trouble for themselves and their families.
And the truth is, while the black schools were far away, the facilities were pretty decent, and the teachers were excellent.
But eventually, these parents went to court to desegregate their children’s schools because as one of the children later explained, and these are her words: “We were talking about the principle of the thing.”
Now, think about that for a minute, those folks had to go all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States just to affirm the principle that black kids and white kids should be able to attend school together.
Today, 60 years later, that probably seems crazy to all of you in this graduating class.
You all take the diversity you’re surrounded by for granted – you probably don’t even notice it.
And that’s understandable, given the country you have grown up in: with a woman Governor, a Latina Supreme Court Justice, a black President.
You’ve seen Latino singers win Grammys and black coaches win the Super Bowl.
You’ve watched TV shows with characters of every background, and when you see a show like The Walking Dead, you don’t think it’s about a black woman, a black guy, an Asian-American guy, a gay couple, and some white people – you think it’s about a bunch of folks trying to escape some zombies, end of story.
And when some folks got all worked up about a cereal commercial with an interracial family, you all were probably thinking, “Really, what’s the problem with that?”
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’s the issue here?”
And if someone were to say something racist on Twitter, well, I imagine many of you would tweet right back, letting them know that’s just not cool.
You see, when you grow up in a place like Topeka where diversity is all you’ve ever known, the old prejudices just don’t make any sense.
It seems crazy to think that folks of the same race or ethnicity all think or act the same way, because you actually know those folks.
They’re your teammate, your lab partner, your best friend.
They’re the girl who’s obsessed with the Jayhawks and loves computer programming, the guy who loves the Wildcats and dreams of being an artist.
But remember, not everyone has grown up in a place like Topeka.
You see, 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.
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, those schools aren’t equal, especially ones attended by students of color which too often lag behind, with crumbling classrooms and less experienced teachers.
And even in schools that seem integrated according to the numbers, when you look a little closer, you see students from different backgrounds sitting at separate lunch tables, or tracked into different classes, or separated into different clubs or activities.
So while students attend school in the same building, they never really reach beyond their own circles, and that probably happens here in Topeka too sometimes.
And these issues go well beyond the walls of our schools.
We know that today in America, 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.
So graduates, the truth is that Brown vs. Board of Education isn’t just about our history, it’s about our future.
Because while that case was handed down 60 years ago, Brown is still being decided every single day – not just in our courts and schools, but in how we live our lives.
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.
There’s no court case against believing in stereotypes or thinking that certain kinds of hateful jokes or comments are funny.
So the answers to many of our challenges today can’t necessarily be found in our laws – these changes also need to take place in our hearts and in our minds.
And graduates, it’s up to all of you to lead the way and drag my generation and your grandparents’ generation along with you.
And that’s really my challenge to all of you today – 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 is up to you to help them see things differently.
And the good news is that you probably won’t have to bring a lawsuit or go all the way to the Supreme Court.
You all can make a difference every day in your own lives simply by teaching others the lessons you’ve learned here in Topeka.
Maybe that starts in your own family, when grandpa tells that awkward joke at Thanksgiving or your aunt says something about “those people,” and you politely inform them that they’re talking about your friends.
Or maybe it’s when you go off to college and you decide to join a sorority or fraternity, and you ask “How can we get more diversity in our next pledge class?”
Or maybe it’s years from now, when you’re at work, and you’re the one who asks, “Do we really have all the voices and viewpoints we need at this table?”
Or maybe it’s when you have kids of your own one day, and you go to your school board meeting and insist on integrating your schools and giving them the resources they need.
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. 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.
And the stakes here simply couldn’t be higher, because as a nation, we have some serious challenges on our plate – from creating jobs, to curing diseases, to giving every child in this country a good education.
And who knows where the next new breakthrough – the next big discovery – will come from?
Maybe the solution for global warming will come from that girl whose parents don’t speak a word of English, but who’s been acing her science classes since kindergarten.
Maybe the answer to poverty will come from that boy from the projects who understands this issue like no one else.
So we need to bring everyone to the table, we need every voice in our national conversation.
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.
Now, I’m not going to lie to you, this won’t be easy.
You might have to ruffle a few feathers and folks might not always like what you have to say.
And there will be times when you’ll get frustrated or discouraged.
But whenever I start to feel that way, I like to take a step back and remind myself of all the progress I’ve seen in my short lifetime.
I think about my mother who, as a little girl, went to segregated schools in Chicago and felt the sting of discrimination. 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.
And then I think about how that child grew up to be the President of the United States, and how today, that little girl from Chicago is helping to raise her granddaughters in the White House.
And finally, I think about the story of a woman named Lucinda Todd who was the very first parent to sign on to Brown vs. Board of Education.
Her daughter, Nancy, went to one of the all-black schools here in Topeka, and Mrs. Todd traveled across this state raising money for the case, determined to give her daughter – and all our sons and daughters – the education they deserve.
And today, six decades later, Mrs. Todd’s grandniece, a young woman named Kristen Jarvis, works as my right-hand woman in the White House, in fact, she’s here with me today.
So if you ever start to get tired, if you ever think about giving up, I want you to remember that journey from a segregated school in Topeka all the way to the White House.
I want you to think about folks like Lucinda Todd, folks who, as my husband once wrote, “decide that a principle is at stake,” folks who “make their claim on this community we call America” and “choose our better history.”
Every day, 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, by sharing the lessons of Brown v. Board of Education, the lessons you learned right here in Topeka, wherever you go for the rest of your lives.
I know you all can do it. I am so proud of all of you, and I cannot wait to see everything you achieve in the years ahead.
So congratulations once again to the class of 2014, and Godspeed on the journey ahead.
Thank you, and God bless.