Michelle Obama urges Topeka seniors to help break barriers - KCTV5

First lady Michelle Obama urges Topeka seniors to help break barriers

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To mark the 60th anniversary of a landmark school desegregation decision, first lady Michelle Obama traveled to Topeka on Friday to address graduating high school seniors.

First lady Michelle Obama said that young people who've grown up with diversity must lead a national fight against prejudice and discrimination because after six decades, the Brown v. Board of Education ruling against school segregation is "still being decided every single day."

Obama is participating in "senior recognition day," in which she spoke to 1,000 seniors from Topeka's public schools during an event at Landon Arena.

"It's really an honor. I'm glad to see her here," Topeka High senior Corrie Barnes said. "We never have people really professional to come down here."

The White House noted that Topeka is home to the historic case that outlawed racial desegregation and declared education "must be made available to all on equal terms."

Her speech came the day before the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision in the Brown case, which takes its title from a federal lawsuit filed by parents in Topeka.

She noted that her special assistant, Kristen Jarvis, is the grandniece of Lucinda Todd, a leader with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Topeka in the 1940s and 1950s, the first parent to sign onto the lawsuit challenging the city's segregated schools. She said Todd, who died in 1996, is an example of people who "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," Obama said in remarks prepared for delivery.

The parents who filed the Topeka lawsuit in 1951 were recruited by local NAACP leaders and included Oliver Brown, whose daughter was not allowed to enroll in an all-white elementary school near their home. The U.S. Supreme Court combined the Kansas case with others from Delaware, South Carolina and Virginia, ruling on May 17, 1954.

The all-black elementary school Brown's daughter was forced to attend is now a national park site dedicated to the history of the Brown case and the civil rights movement.

Obama said that despite the progress the Brown decision represented, some school districts have pulled back on efforts integrate their schools and communities have come less diverse as residents move from cities to suburbs.

"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," she said.

She added: "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."

The first lady spoke at the ceremony honoring the graduates after meeting with high school students who are participating in a federally funded program that prepares poor children and children in foster care for higher education.

Her events Friday were scheduled after the initial announcement of her trip last month stirred criticism in the Kansas capital. She'd initially planned to speak Saturday during a combined graduation ceremony for five schools, but some parents and students were worried the arena for the speech wouldn't be large enough to accommodate all the students' family members.

Nearly 1,800 students signed a petition on the issue.

"I feel kind of bad that people were being ignorant about it," Barnes said.

Democratic President Barack Obama received just 38 percent of the vote in Republican-leaning Kansas in 2012. GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, a frequent critic of the administration, was on stage for the speech. Also present was outgoing U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who faced criticism after the flawed launch of the federal online health insurance marketplace. She's a former two-term Kansas governor.

Obama said young people who've grown up with diversity should speak up when family members make insensitive remarks and push for diversity in the organizations and companies they join.

"The truth is that Brown v. Board of Education isn't just about our history, it's about our future," she said. "Because while the 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."

Jasmine Drone was excited about the address.

"My sister graduated last year and she's like, 'I don't remember who spoke,' and that was just last year. It's an honor because I'm going to remember this," Drone said.

Lauren Sherwood, who was picked to introduce Obama, concurred, saying having a first lady in Topeka is an honor.

"If anyone would overshadow my graduation, I think first lady Michelle Obama would be the person to get away with that," Sherwood said. "So I'm perfectly content with that."

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