She warned that the specter of school segregation is returning as people of different races cluster in separate communities, urging the graduates to continue striving for inclusion and mutual understanding.
(CBS News) First lady Michelle Obama marked the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that ended school segregation during a speech on Friday before graduating high school seniors in Topeka, Kansas.
In her prepared remarks, the first lady praised the legacy of that decision, Brown v. Board of Education, noting the diversity of the crowd before her. But she also warned that the specter of school segregation is returning as people of different races cluster in separate communities, urging the graduates to continue striving for inclusion and mutual understanding.
"I think it's fitting that we're 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 -- our soon-to-be-graduates -- you all are the living, breathing legacy of this case," she said. "Just look around this arena. Look at all the colors, cultures and faiths represented here tonight."
That diversity "would have been unimaginable back in 1954," she said, when a group of black parents in Kansas took their fight for school integration all the way to the Supreme Court.
"Today, 60 years later, that probably seems crazy to all of you in this graduating class," she said. "But remember, not everyone has grown up in a place like Topeka."
"You see, many districts in this country have actually pulled back on efforts to integrate their schools and many communities have become less diverse as folks have moved from cities to suburbs," she explained. "So today, by some measures, our schools are as segregated as they were back when Dr. King gave his final speech. As a result, many young people in America are going to school largely with kids who look just like them."
That segregation, Obama said, is worsened by the fact that many schools serving predominantly minority communities are not as well-equipped as schools in other areas.
She also said the problems created by a lack of diversity don't stop in the classroom.
"We know that today in America, too many folks are still stopped on the street because of the color of their skin, or they're made to feel unwelcome because of where they're from, or they're bullied because of who they love," she said. "So graduates, the truth is that Brown vs. Board of Education isn't just about our history, it's about our future."
Obama urged the graduating seniors to do their part to champion diversity as they move on to college and begin living as adults. "We need all of you to ask the hard questions and have the honest conversations," she said, "because that is the only way we will heal the wounds of the past and move forward to a better future."
The first lady was originally scheduled to speak at the actual commencement ceremony for area high schools on May 17, but her speech was pushed back after some parents voiced concerns that her speech would overshadow the graduates' big day and make it difficult for families to secure enough seats for the event.
Earlier Friday, President Obama commemorated the anniversary with a meeting at the White House with the families of the plaintiffs in the Brown vs. Board of Education case.