Speaking on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, first lady Michelle Obama challenged high school seniors Friday to stand up to prejudice when they see it and not be afraid to talk about race.
Addressing graduating high school students in Topeka, Kan., where the 1954 Supreme Court decision desegregated the city's schools, she said many young people today find it hard to imagine segregation and may not appreciate the changes wrought by the ruling.
Pointing to examples including a recent controversy over a cereal commercial featuring a biracial couple, the first lady said: "You all take the diversity you're surrounded by for granted — you probably don't even notice it."
But she also warned students that race-based inequality and racism still exist and said school districts have "pulled back" on efforts to integrate even as schools are becoming less diverse. "So today, by some measures, our schools are as segregated as they were back when Dr. King gave his final speech," she said. "As a result, many young people in America are going to school largely with kids who look just like them."
As the first lady traveled to Topeka, her husband met at the White House on Friday with families of the plaintiffs in Brown and members of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
President Barack Obama said in a statement that Brown was the "first major step in dismantling the 'separate but equal' doctrine that justified Jim Crow" laws in the South. He also said the nation must honor the legacy of those who fought for civil rights by taking up their mantle.
"As we commemorate this historic anniversary, we recommit ourselves to the long struggle to stamp out bigotry and racism in all their forms," he said. "We reaffirm our belief that all children deserve an education worthy of their promise. And we remember that change did not come overnight — that it took many years and a nationwide movement to fully realize the dream of civil rights for all of God's children."