Obamas mark historic court decision

First lady calls for more integration in U.S. schools

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TOPEKA, Kan. -- Sixty years after the Supreme Court outlawed "separate but equal" schools for blacks and whites, civil rights advocates say U.S. schools are becoming increasingly segregated, a point echoed Friday by Michelle Obama, who considers herself a beneficiary of the ruling.

"Today, by some measures, our schools are as segregated as they were back when Dr. King gave his final speech" in 1968, Mrs. Obama told high school seniors here in the city that gave rise to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

"As a result," the first lady said, "many young people are going to schools with kids who look just like them."

In a speech that was part commencement address, part policy pronouncement and part journey into her own past, Mrs. Obama lamented that "many districts in this country have actually pulled back on efforts to integrate their schools, and may communities have become less diverse," leading to schools that are less diverse.

Today about 4 in 10 black and Latino students attend intensely segregated schools, the federal Department of Education reported on its official blog Friday, adding only 14 percent of white students attend schools that could be considered multicultural.

"We have slowly and very steadily slipped backward," said Catherine E. Lhamon, the department's assistant secretary for civil rights. "All over the country we are seeing more and more racially segregated schools. That is a reflection of housing patterns, a reflection of school siting choices, a reflection of a society as a whole that has not committed itself to delivering the educational promise of Brown."

In Washington, President Barack Obama planned to mark the anniversary of the 1954 Brown decision Friday evening by meeting at the White House with families of the plaintiffs and attorneys in the case. Among them will be Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of Oliver L. Brown, a shop welder for the Santa Fe railroad who was the lead plaintiff in the case.

"It's our first African-American president, something that many people involved in Brown didn't think they would live to see," Ms. Brown Henderson said in an interview this week, calling the visit "a manifestation of what they worked for."

Here in Topeka, Ms. Brown Henderson was instrumental in creating the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site -- a two-story brick schoolhouse that was once a blacks-only school. A decade ago, the schoolhouse was converted into a museum and civil rights education center. Mrs. Obama toured the site Friday.

Her visit followed one earlier in the day by Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas, who spoke to a small audience of civic leaders and schoolchildren and cut a ribbon on a newly restored kindergarten classroom.

"Separate but equal ends here," Mr. Brownback said, calling the Brown decision "one of the best Supreme Court rulings ever in the history of the country."

Yet here in Kansas, there is intense debate over whether the state is living up to the promise of the Brown decision. Civil rights advocates have accused Mr. Brownback's administration of imposing school financing cuts that are disproportionately hurting schools in low-income and minority neighborhoods.

People in Topeka have strong feelings about the Brown case; some of those who attended Mr. Brownback's ribbon cutting Friday were old enough to have attended segregated schools here. Among them was Dale Cushinberry, a retired school principal, who is black and recalls being bused as a child to a school outside his own neighborhood.

"Our neighborhood was integrated," Mr. Cushinberry said. "We played in the park together, and played ball on weekends, and then on Monday we would get on a yellow school bus and they" -- his white playmates -- "would walk down the street" to the neighborhood school. "After Brown we just walked to school together."

For Mrs. Obama, too, the visit was personal. Unlike her husband, who grew up partly in Indonesia and later attended a private prep school in Hawaii, the first lady was born into 1960s segregated Chicago, at a time when public schools were still resisting integration.

By the time she entered high school, the city -- under pressure from the federal government to comply with the Brown decision -- opened an integrated magnet school for high achievers, which Mrs. Obama credits with setting her on a path to attend Princeton University, and Harvard Law School.

"Brown is still being decided every single day," Mrs. Obama said, "not just in our courts and in our schools, but in how we live our lives."

She told the students in Topeka that when she was feeling discouraged, she liked to "take a step back and remind myself" of all the progress she had seen in her lifetime.

"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," who helped raise a biracial grandson.

"And then," the first lady said, "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 [mother's] granddaughters in the White House."


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