First lady Michelle Obama addressed graduating students from the Topeka school district as their parents looked on at the Kansas Expocentre on Friday night, the eve of the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision.
The first lady was joined onstage by Gov. Sam Brownback to celebrate the landmark case’s anniversary – which outlawed segregation in public schools – and the graduating seniors from the district’s five high schools. Former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who recently stepped down as U.S. Secretary of Human Health and Services, sat in the audience in a venue that was filled to the brim.
“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,” Obama said.
She told the students to look around the arena and see the mix of races, cultures and faiths in the audience.
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“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,” she said.
But Obama did not just reflect on the past.
Despite the end to legal segregation, many cities throughout the United States remain racially divided. Obama said it would take more than a court case to change that.
She noted that many students of color lag their white peers and attend schools with crumbling classrooms and less-experienced teachers.
“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,” she said.
“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.”
Her speech, which drew heavily on progressive ideals, encouraged the students to push older generations forward on issues like gay rights and climate change.
“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?’” she said, referring to the first openly gay basketball player in the NBA and the first openly gay football player to be drafted by an NFL team.
This line got hearty applause. It was a friendly audience for progressives. Sebelius received a standing ovation. Brownback, on the other hand, was greeted by a mix of boos and cheers when introduced.
“And graduates, it’s up to all of you to lead the way and drag my generation and your grandparents’ generation along with you,” Obama said.
“And who knows where the next breakthrough – the next big discovery – will come from?” she said. “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.”
One of the student speakers, Rosemary Torres, valedictorian at Hope Street Academy, delivered her speech in Spanish before repeating it in English.
“As I look around the room I see a sea of faces, different cultures, different ethnicities,” Torres said. But she said that the Brown decision had made it possible for them to unite as one district.
Torres later said it was the school board’s idea for her to use both languages.
“But I was thrilled to do it,” she said, beaming with pride after the ceremony.
The first lady told students not to be afraid to ruffle feathers in order to make social change happen. Trenton Greeley, a graduating student from Highland Park High School, was ready to answer her call.
“The way I see it, if we just come together as a community, as a whole, we should be able to strike these things down no problem,” he said a few minutes after the ceremony ended.
Obama’s visit generated some controversy when first announced. She was originally scheduled to speak Saturday before a joint graduation ceremony for Topeka’s five public high schools, and many families worried that there would be too few seats to accommodate everyone who wanted to attend.
An alternate plan to have the first lady address the students the night before was created in response. By Friday night, though, the furor had faded.
In fact, Lauren Sherwood, the valedictorian of Topeka High School who introduced the first lady, received uproarious applause whenever she said Obama’s name.
Sherwood joked that she thought she was on an episode of the MTV show “Punk’d” when she first heard that the first lady would join in the district’s graduation festivities.
“But for sure we’re not,” Sherwood said, “because the first lady is onstage with me right now. It’s crazy to be able to say that.”
Erin Templeton, whose daughter graduates from Topeka High School on Saturday, said it gave her goose bumps to see the first lady speak to her daughter and her classmates.
“It was an amazing experience, something that I’ll never get to experience again. It was an honor,” she said.
The speech struck a chord with her daughter, Payton Templeton.
“It was inspiring and it made me think,” Payton said. “I kind of reflected back on my four high school years and thought how I should have been more open to diversity.
“It definitely opened my eyes.”