Washington — President Bush is marking 50 years of school integration at the symbolic home of the movement, celebrating what became a turning point in national race relations.
And he hopes to make some inroads himself among black Americans skeptical of his commitment to equal opportunity in education. Bush drew just 9 percent of the black vote in 2000.
|Here are today's events, official and unofficial, in connection with Topeka's celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board decision.¢ State commemoration proclamation at 8:30 a.m. on the south steps of the Capitol. U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., attended and made remarks that 'separate and unequal' public schools still exist. See story¢ President Bush is the key speaker at the grand opening of Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, 1515 S.E. Monroe St. The event starts at 10:30 a.m. and lasts about two hours. No more tickets are available. Those who already have tickets may board shuttle buses at the Kansas Expocentre, One Expocentre Drive, beginning at 8 a.m. For more information, call LaTonya Miller at (785) 354-1489, ext. 224.¢ Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh and Atty. Gen. Phill Kline will play host to a reception from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Memorial Hall, 120 S.W. 10th Ave. Free and open to the public.¢ Premiere of "Now Let Me Fly" a play about Brown v. Board of Education, at 7 p.m. at the Topeka Performing Arts Center, 214 S.E. Eighth St. All tickets to the free reading are gone, but vacant seats will be filled on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information, call (785) 234-2787.|
Bush was the headliner at Monday's opening of a national historic site at the former Monroe Elementary School in Topeka, Kan., a centerpiece of the Supreme Court case that ended segregation. From Kansas, he was heading to Atlanta for a GOP fund raiser.
In one of the signature decisions of the 20th century, the court declared on May 17, 1954, that separating students by race was inherently unequal and unconstitutional. The Brown v. Board of Education ruling -- named for a challenge in Topeka but encompassing five different cases -- helped energize the civil rights movement, although resistance delayed desegregation for years.
Bush's speech comes at a time when, through a recent campaign swing and television ads, he tries to restore attention to his original domestic priority: improving education.
His administration describes the No Child Left Behind Act as an extension of the Brown case because it seeks to end what Bush calls a bigotry of low expectations for minorities.
But the president increasingly finds the law he championed to be a tough sell, as schools struggle to meet goals and lawmakers, mainly Democrats, say much more federal money is needed.
An aide said in advance that Bush would not turn his Brown commemoration into a speech about the law, instead focusing on the nation's broader progress in race relations and what still must be accomplished.
It was Bush's father who, as president in 1992, signed the law that turned Monroe Elementary into a national landmark. Now the younger Bush comes to Kansas, a state he won comfortably in 2000, and one he had not previously visited as president.
In 2000, blacks supported Al Gore over Bush by a 9-1 margin.
The president was being accompanied to Topeka by Education Secretary Rod Paige, his appointee and the first black person to hold the Cabinet post.
But Bush, who opposes affirmative action programs for minorities, was unlikely to win over black voters no matter what he said Monday, said David Bositis, a political scientist at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank focused on black issues.
"The negative feelings in general -- the war in Iraq, a whole variety of issues -- carry over into education," Bositis said. "Even if there were parts of No Child Left Behind that are potentially very positive educational reforms, it doesn't matter anymore, because I think the attitude among many African-Americans is it's time for Bush to go back to Crawford, Texas."
Bush and Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts have been running close nationally on the question of who would do a better job on education. Bush is widely credited for helping the Republican Party claim ground in public education, with a focus on getting top teachers in all core classes and holding schools accountable for record increases in federal spending.
Kerry was attending a different Brown ceremony in Topeka on Monday, contending that schools remain "separate and unequal" and warning that some were trying to reverse the gains made in civil rights, including affirmative action. Millions of children get a second-class education because they are poor, he said.
"We have certainly not met the promise of Brown when, in too many parts of our country, our school systems are not separate but equal, but separate and unequal," Kerry said in prepared remarks.
Unlike most of Bush's fund raisers, his appearance in the home of an Atlanta supporter Monday night was closed to the news media. Bush campaign officials have told backers that the campaign's policy of barring journalists from private homes is one advantage of holding them there instead of the usual hotel ballrooms where Bush raises money.