On May 16, 2014, a friend and I saw First Lady Michelle Obama present a graduation speech to the High School graduates in Topeka, Kansas.
There was much controversy about the event on the ground in Topeka, also commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate schools. Her speech opened my heart and mind, and brought me to tears.
I can’t think of anything of a time more pertinent to remember this, then the time we are in now.
Following is the transcript of the speech, and a link to the video. An ellipses indicates a points of cheering when her words are indecipherable from my audio recording.
Thank you, and I love you, too.
It is beyond a pleasure and an honor, to be here with you today to celebrate the class of 2014. Thank you so much for having me. I am so proud of you guys.
A day like this makes me think of my own daughters, so forgive me if I get a little teary.
We have a great group of students here. We have students from Highland Park High School, we have Avondale Academy students here today, Topeka High School is here, and of course we have Topeka West High.
Tomorrow will be a big day for all of you. You have worked so hard, I can tell, you have come so far. When you walk across that stage tomorrow to get your diploma, know that I will be thinking of you all.
I am so proud of you all, and all that you have achieved thus far. And you have got so many people here who are proud of you tonight. Your families are here, your teachers and counselors, your coaches – everyone who has poured their love and hope to you over these many, many years.
Let’s take a moment to give a round of applause to those folks as well. Thank you.
(more thanks to people on the stage)
About Brown v. Board, you have approached this issue past present and future, and I think that it is fitting that we are celebrating this historic Supreme Court case tonight. Not just because Brown started right here in Topeka, or because Brown’s 60th anniversary is tomorrow, but because I believe that all of you who are soon to be graduates – you all are the living, breathing legacy of this case. Yes.
Look around – not only are you beautiful and handsome and talented and smart but you represent all colors and cultures and faiths here tonight. You come from all walks of life and you have taken so many different paths to reach this moment.
Maybe your ancestors have been here in Kansas for centuries; or maybe, like mine, they came to this country in chains; or maybe your family just arrived here in search of a better life. But no matter how you got here, you have arrived at this day today together.
For so many years you have all studied together in the same classrooms, played on the same teams, attended the same parties, and hopefully you’ve behaved yourselves at these parties. You’ve debated each other’s ideas hearing every possible opinion and perspective, you’ve heard each others languages in hallways – English, Spanish, and others all mixed together in a uniquely American conversation. You’ve celebrated each other’s holidays and heritages. In fact, I was told that in one of your schools so many students who weren’t Black wanted to join the Black Students Club and you decided to call it the African American Cultural Club, so that everyone would feel welcome.
It is clear that some of the most important parts of your education have come not just from your classes, but from you classmates, and ultimately, that was the hope and dream of Brown. That’s why we’re celebrating here tonight.
Now the fact is, that your experience here in Topeka would have been unimaginable back in 1954. When Brown v. Board of Education first went to the Supreme Court, this would not be possible. As you all know back then Topeka like so many cities was segregated. So black folks and white folks had separate restaurants, separate hotels, separate movie theaters, swimming pools, and of course the elementary schools were segregated, too. Even though many black children lived just blocks away from white schools in their neighborhoods, they had to take long bus rides to all black schools across town.
So eventually a group of Black parents go tired of this arrangement and they decided to do something about it. Now these were ordinary folks. Most of them were not Civil Rights activists, and some of them were probably nervous about speaking up, worried they might cause trouble for themselves and their families. And the truth is that while the black schools were far away, the facilities were pretty decent, and the teachers were excellent, but eventually these parents went to court to desegregate their children’s schools because, as one of the children later explained, as an adult, she said: we were talking about the principle of the thing. Now think about that for a moment. Those folks had to go all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States just to affirm the principle that Black kids and White kids could attend school together.
And today, 60 years later, that probably seems crazy to all of you in this graduating class, right? You all take the diversity you are surrounded by for granted. You probably don’t even notice it. And that’s understandable given the country you have grown up in.
With a woman governor, a Latina Supreme Court Justice, a Black president.
You’ve seen Black coaches win Super Bowls. You’ve watched TV shows and characters of every background. So, when you watch a show like The Walking Dead – you don’t think it’s about a Black guy, a Black woman, an Asian guy, a gay couple and some White people? You think it’s about a bunch of folks trying to escape some Zombies, right? Period.
And now when some folks got all worked up about a cereal commercial with an interracial family, you all were probably thinking, really? What’s the problem with that?
When folks made a big deal about Jason Collins and (…) coming out as gay, you probably thought, what is the issue here?
If someone would say something racist on Twitter, well than I would imagine many of you would Tweet right back, letting them know that’s just not cool.
You see, when you grow up in a place like Topeka, where diversity is all you’ve ever known, the old prejudices just don’t make any sense. See it’s crazy to think that folks of the same race or ethnicity all think or act the same way because you actually know those folks. They are your teammates, your lab partner, your best friend. They’re the girl whose obsessed with the Jayhawks but still loves Topeka…
And these issues go well beyond the walls of our schools. We know that today in America, too many folks are still stopped on the street because of the color of their skin. They are made to feel unwelcomed because of where they come from or they are bullied because of who they love.
So graduates, the truth is that Brown v Board is not just about our history, it’s about our future. Because while that case 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. Now laws may no longer separate us based on our skin color, but nothing in the Constitution says that we have to eat together in the lunch rooms, or live together in the same neighborhoods, there’s no court case against in believing in stereotypes or thinking that certain kinds of hateful jokes or comments are funny.
So the answers of many of our challenges today can’t necessarily be found in our laws. These changes also need to take place in our hearts, and in our minds.
And so graduates, it’s up to all of you to lead the way. To drag my generation and your grandparents generation along with you. And that’s really my challenge to all of you today.
As you go forth, when you encounter folks who still hold the old prejudices because they’ve only been around folks like themselves, when we meet folks who think they know the answers because they’ve never heard any other viewpoints. It’s up to you to help them see things differently.
And the good news is that you probably won’t have to bring a law suite or go all the way to the Supreme Court to do that. You all can make a difference every day in your own lives, simply be teaching others the lessons you’ve learned here in Topeka.
Maybe that starts simply in your own family. When Grandpa tells that off color joke at Thanksgiving, or you got an Aunt that talks about “those people,” well you can politely inform them that they are talking about your friends. Or maybe when you go off to college, and you decide to join a sorority or fraternity, and you ask the question: How can we get more diversity in our next pledge class? Or years from now on the job, and you are the one who asks do we really have all the voices and viewpoints we need at this table? Maybe it’s when you have kids of your own one day, and you go to your School Board meeting, and insist on integrating your children’s schools and giving them the resources they need.
But no matter what you do, the point is to never be afraid to talk about these issues, particularly the issue of race because even today we still struggle to do that because this issue is so sensitive, it’s so complicated, it’s so bound up with a painful history, and we need your generation to help us break through. We need all of you to ask the hard questions and have the honest conversations because that is the only way we will heal the wounds of the past and move forward to a better future.
And here’s the thing – the stakes simply couldn’t be higher, because as a nation we have some serious challenges on our plate. From creating jobs, to curing diseases, to giving every child in this country a good education. And we know – we don’t even know – where the next break through, where the next great discovery will come from.
Maybe the solution to global warming will come from that girl whose parents don’t speak a word of English, but whose been acing her science classes since kindergarten. Maybe an answer to poverty will come from a boy from the projects who understands this issue like no one else. So we need to bring everyone to the table. We need every voice in our national conversation.
So graduates, that is your mission. To make sure all those voices are heard, to make sure everyone in this country has a chance to contribute.
And I’m not going to lie to you, this will not be easy – you might have to ruffle a few feathers, and believe me folks might not like what you have to say, and there will be times when you will get frustrated, or discouraged. But whenever I start to feel that way, I take a step back and remind myself of all the progress I’ve seen in my short lifetime.
I think about my Mother who as a little girl went to segregated schools in Chicago and felt the sting of discrimination. I think about my husband’s grand-parents, White folks born and raised right here in Kansas, (…) those are honest people who help raised their biracial grandson, ignoring those who would criticize that child’s very existence, and how then that child grew up to be the President of the United States of America
I think about the story of a woman named Lucinda Todd, who was the very first parent to sign onto Brown v. Board of Education. Lucinda’s daughter, Nancy, went to one of the all black schools here in Topeka, and Lucinda Todd traveled across this state raising money for this case, determined to give her daughter and all our sons and daughters the education they deserve. And today, 6 decades later, Mrs. Todd’s grandniece, a young woman named Kristen Jarvis, works as my right hand woman in the White House.
So, if you ever stop and get tired, if you ever think about giving up, I want you to remember that journey from a segregated school in Topeka all the way to the White House.
Folks who make their claim in this community we call America can choose our better history. Every day, you have the power to choose our better history by opening your hearts and minds, by speaking out for what you know is right, by sharing the lessons of Brown v Board of Education, the lessons you all learned right here in Topeka wherever you go, for the rest of your lives. I know you all can do it. I am so proud of all that you have accomplished. This is your day. I’m here because of you. And I cannot wait to see everything you have achieved in the years ahead. So congratulations once again to the class of 2014.
I love you.