Michelle Obama Challenges Topeka Seniors To Stand Up To Discrimination

By: Nick Viviani/Melissa Brunner
By: Nick Viviani/Melissa Brunner
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) -- First Lady Michelle Obama challenged Topeka Public School seniors to battle the "old prejudices" that linger not in the laws, but in some people's hearts and minds "and (to) drag my generation and your grandparents’ generation along with you."

"You might have to ruffle a few feathers and folks might not always like what you have to say," she added.

Her comments came Friday night at a special senior recognition ceremony on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board U.S. Supreme Court ruling, ending school segregation.

While Mrs. Obama may taken center stage, she insisted the members of Topeka Public Schools class of 2014 were the stars of the show.

"This day is about you. I'm here because of you," she said. "You are all the living, breathing legacy of this case."

Student speakers reflected on the promise of Brown - past, present and future.

Rosemary Torres of Hope Street Academy said the gathering was a celebration of hope and united and about everyone who fought for the students, who are "the children of today. and the leaders of tomorrow." Alisha White of Highland Park High School said her plans to attend Tuskegee Institute and major in chemical engineering would not be possible if it weren't for the Brown decision.

Mrs. Obama drew cheers and laughs as she described the many ways in which today's students are colorblind. For example, the diverse casts of television shows like The Walking Dead.

"You don't think it's about a black woman, a black guy, an Asian-American guy, a gay couple and some white people," she said. "You think it's a bout a bunch of folks trying to escape some zombies. End of story."

But she went on to say that many communities have become less diverse, resulting in schools that are much the same. Plus, she said people are still profiled based on race, income, sexual orientation or ethnic or religious background.

"(W)hile that dcase was handed down 60 years ago, Brown is still being decided every single day, not just in our courts and schools, but in how we live our lives," she said. "There's no court case against believing in stereotypes or thinking that certain kinds of hateful jokes or comments are funny."

The First Lady then challenged the graduates to be the force that brings the Brown case into the future by changing those prejudices.

"The answers to many of our challenges today can't necessarily be found in our laws," she said. "These changes also need to take place in our hearts and in our minds."

Their teachers, like Highland Park High School principal Beryl New, believe the students are up to the challenge. In delivering the closing remarks, New recounted how she was a "proud" product of Topeka and its schools, attending the all-black Monroe School as a child. She says the students today face a future that will not be determined by color but by the life they choose to live.

In making the right choices, Mrs. Obama says she is confident this will be the generation that breaks through.

"Every day, you have that same power to choose our better history," she said. "I know you all can do it."

The First Lady originally was scheduled to speak at a combined graduation ceremony on Saturday's 60th anniversary date, but changed her schedule when she heard students were concerned it would limit attendance. Highland Park, Topeka West and Topeka High seniors return to the Expocentre Saturday for their separate graduation ceremonies.

Before Friday's evening event, Mrs. Obama stopped by the Brown vs. Board of Education historic site, where she talked to students in GEARUP program.


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