Celebrating a milestone
Bush, Kerry renew calls for equality
Topeka ? Political rivals George Bush and John Kerry were able to agree on at least one thing Monday as they joined thousands celebrating the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that outlawed segregation: Work remains to be done.
“The habits of racism in America have not all been broken,” President Bush said. “The habits of respect must be taught to every generation.”
Earlier, on the steps of the Kansas Statehouse, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, told a crowd the nation’s schools remained “separate but unequal.”
“We should not delude ourselves into thinking for an instant that because Brown represents the law we have achieved our goal, that the work of Brown is done when there are those who still seek, in different ways, to see it undone — to roll back affirmative action, to restrict equal rights, to undermine the promise of our Constitution,” Kerry said.
Bush, Kerry, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and dozens of other officials were among throngs who gathered to celebrate the landmark civil rights decision and dedication of the new national historic site that is both a museum honoring the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and the symbolic epicenter of the nation’s racial desegregation movement.
The lead plaintiff in the case was a Topeka family whose oldest daughter, Linda Brown, had to travel two miles to attend Monroe Elementary School though an all-white school was just blocks from their home.
Speaking to a crowd of more than 5,500 people outside the once all-black Monroe School, the president said the unanimous ruling marked a turning point.
“A line had been crossed in American history. The system of racial oppression in our country had lost its claim to legitimacy, and the rising demand of justice would not be denied,” Bush said.
‘Still not equal’
But he noted that the struggle continued.
“While our schools are no longer segregated by law, they are still not equal in opportunity and excellence,” he said. “Justice requires more than a place in a school. Justice requires that every school teach every child in America.”
And the current Kansas fight about equitable school funding was not far from people’s minds.
A Shawnee County District Court judge has declared the Kansas school finance system unconstitutional because it discriminates against minority students. The judge has ordered state school funding to cease June 30 unless the Legislature fixes the inequities. The case is on appeal before the Kansas Supreme Court.
One of the biggest rounds of applause during the Brown celebration erupted when Topeka Mayor James McClinton called on Kansas legislators to increase funding for schools.
“Our children want summer school programs. Don’t fail them now,” McClinton said. “Our teachers want adequate pay for the hard work they do. Don’t fail them now.”
‘The greatest threat’
U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, gave a rousing speech in which he advocated for more education spending and said predominantly minority schools were getting shortchanged.
“The greatest threat to our national security is our failure to properly educate our children,” he said.
State Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, was in the crowd and noted almost all the speakers addressed the need to continue striving for equity in education.
“There are a lot of corollaries between the two situations,” Davis said. “Brown really opened up the school doors. We now have a different kind of struggle: to ensure that schools are properly funded so that schoolchildren have equal opportunities.”
Christopher Carlson, a 10th-grader from McPherson who came to the event with his history class, said he was upset about talk of cutting programs at schools because of budget constraints.
“Our age group is America’s future, and education is the only thing that we have right now,” he said.
But many in the crowd focused on the recognition of a milestone in civil rights history.
Deborah Dandridge, a Kansas University librarian, grew up attending segregated schools in Topeka. She is a friend of the Brown family, and her mother taught at Monroe School.
Of the Brown decision, Dandridge said, “It laid the foundation and once again places Kansas at the center of the issues of equal rights and freedom.”
She noted that in the 1950s, Topeka had excellent black schools and that many in the black community didn’t want to jeopardize their system by fighting for integration.
“It’s a quality building (Monroe), and all of our teachers had more degrees than they ever needed,” Dandridge said. “The African-American community was not all that interested in changing our schools as far as being the sacrificial lamb to fight this issue of Jim Crow.”
So the issue before the court was simply whether segregation was constitutional, she said.
Breyer, in remarks to the crowd, highlighted the issue.
“The Constitution belongs not to the majority or to the lawyers or to the judges, but to each of us,” the justice said. “Brown helped us to understand that the Constitution is ours, whoever we may be.”
The historic site’s opening and Bush’s visit were overwhelming for Dandridge.
“I really wish my mother had lived to see this,” she said.
Bill Newman of Lawrence, a 1973 graduate of Lawrence High School and now an electrician with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, also was taken by the historic nature of the event.
“I just wanted to be part of this great moment,” he said as he listened to the speeches.
Newman said the Brown decision was “like the building blocks of civil rights. It was a very important decision as far as being a minority in America.”
The crowd sat through more than two hours of music and speeches on a day that started out cloudy but soon became warm and humid.
The 312th U.S. Army Band, a reserve unit based in Lawrence, entertained the crowd with “America the Beautiful,” “Stars and Stripes Forever” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“We were honored to do this,” said Sgt. 1st Class Renee Joyce, a flute player with the group.
The Fort Riley Honor Guard posted the colors, and the 16th Street Baptist Church Choir of Birmingham, Ala., and Thurgood Marshall Academy Choir of New York sang.
About 12:30 p.m., Air Force One lumbered low in the sky over the site, prompting hundreds of people to click photos of the jet.
At 1 p.m., Bush and Cheryl Brown Henderson, the youngest daughter of the Brown family and president of The Brown Foundation, walked together from inside Monroe School to the outdoor stage.
Moments later, Bush started his speech.
He praised those young children who were among the first blacks to enter white schools and often were ridiculed and sometimes assaulted.
“America is still grateful to every child that has had to make that walk,” Bush said.
He concluded his 14-minute speech saying, “On this day, in this place, we remember with gratitude the good souls who saw a great wrong and stood their ground and won their case. And we celebrate a milestone in the history of our glorious nation.”
State Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, attended both the early-morning visit by Kerry during a proclamation ceremony at the Capitol with Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, and the later celebration at the historic site.
She said the nation had come a long way in 50 years.
Looking at the crowd, she said, “You wouldn’t have had this diverse group 50 years ago.”
Watching people getting cups of water from the Red Cross, she noted they were taking a sip and passing it down to the next person.
“That wouldn’t have happened 50 years ago,” she said. “I don’t think anyone can deny we have made tremendous change.”
— Journal-World wire services contributed to this report.