First lady Michelle Obama issued a warning Friday about the return of school segregation nearly 60 years after it was struck down by the Supreme Court's decision in the pivotal Brown v. Board of Education, according to a statement released by the White House.
Speaking to about 1,200 graduating high school seniors and their families in Topeka, Kan., where the historic legal case began, the first lady said schools today are as segregated as they were in April 1968 when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the “Mountaintop” speech, his final address.
“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,” she told the group.
As a result, she said, many young Americans are going to school largely with children 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,” the statement says. “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.”
The speech comes on the heels of a report by the Department of Education on its blog that today four in 10 black and Hispanic students attend highly segregated schools. The report also stated that only 14 percent of white students attend schools that could be considered multicultural.
“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,” the first lady said. “And these issues go well beyond the walls of our schools.”
Classrooms reflect the world around students, she said.
“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 continued. “So graduates, the truth is that Brown v. Board of Education isn’t just about our history, it’s about our future.”
Her words resonated in a community where parents and students complained vociferously about plans for her to speak at a combined graduation ceremony for several high schools, saying her presence would limit the number of seats per graduates because of increased security for the first lady. A compromise was reached, with the first lady addressing the group one day before the formal graduation in an event billed as a senior recognition ceremony.
“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,” she told the group, the statement says.