The White House

Office of the First Lady

Remarks by the First Lady at Topeka School District Senior Recognition Day

Expo Center

Topeka, Kansas

6:33 P.M. CDT

     MRS. OBAMA:  Thank you, guys.  Thank you so much.  Wow!  (Applause.)  Look at you guys.  (Applause.)  All right, you all rest yourselves.  You’ve got a big day tomorrow.  I want you guys to be ready. 

It is beyond a pleasure and an honor, truly, to be with you here today to celebrate the class of 2014.  Thank you so much for having me.  I’m so proud of you guys.  (Applause.)  Days like this make me think of my own daughters, so forgive me if a get a little teary.  You guys look great.

We have a great group of students here.  We have students from Highland Park High School.  (Applause.)  We have Hope Street Academy students here today.  (Applause.)  Topeka High School is in the house.  (Applause.)  And of course, we have Topeka West High School in the house.  (Applause.) 

Tomorrow will be a big day for all of you.  You all have worked so hard, I know -- I can tell.  You’ve come so far.  And as you walk across that stage tomorrow to get your diploma, know that I’m going to be thinking of you all.  I am so proud of you all and all that you’ve 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 principals, your coaches, everyone who has poured their love and hope into you over these many, many years.  So, graduates, let’s just take a moment to give a round of applause to those folks, as well.  Tonight is their night, too.  Yes!  (Applause.)

Now, I want to start by thanking Lauren for that amazing introduction.  (Applause.)  Yes, indeed.  Well done, Lauren.  I want to thank a few other people here -- of course, Secretary Sebelius.  As you know, my husband and I are so grateful for all that she has done, her wonderful service.  (Applause.)  And I’m so glad that she and her family could join us tonight. 

And of course, I want to recognize Congresswoman Jenkins, Governor Brownback, and Mayor Wolgast, as well as Superintendent Ford, School Board President Johnson, and all of your great principals -- Principals Carton, New, Noll and Wiley.  (Applause.)  Yay!

And finally, to our fantastic student speakers -- Alisha, Rosemary and Noah –- just hearing your backgrounds makes me feel like an underachiever, so thank you so much for your remarks about Brown vs. Board of Ed..  I know Noah is coming.  You have approached this issue past, present and future.

And 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.  Yes.  (Applause.) 

I mean, just look around at this arena.  Not only are you beautiful and handsome and talented and smart, but you represent all colors and cultures and faiths here tonight.  (Applause.)  You come from all walks of life, and you’ve 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 together.  For so many years, you all have studied together in the same classrooms, you’ve played on the same teams, attended the same parties -- hopefully you behaved yourselves at those parties.  (Laughter.)  You’ve debated each other’s ideas, hearing every possible opinion and perspective.  You’ve heard each other’s languages in the 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 at one of your schools so many students who aren’t black wanted to join the black students club that you decided to call it the African American Culture Club so everyone would feel welcome.  Way to go.  (Applause.)   

So, graduates, it is clear that some of the most important parts of your education have come not just from your classes, but from your classmates.  And ultimately, that was the hope and dream of Brown.  That’s why we’re celebrating here tonight, because 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.  So even though many black children lived just blocks away from their 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 got 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, 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 should be able to 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’re 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.  (Applause.)   

You have seen Latino singers win Grammys, black coaches win Super Bowls.  You’ve watched TV shows in -- characters of every background.  So when you watch a show like the “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.  (Laughter.) 

And then 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 Michael Sam coming out as gay, a lot of kids in your generation thought, what is the issue here?  (Applause.)  And if someone were to say something racist on Twitter, well, I imagine that 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.  Seems 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’re your teammates, your lab partner, your best friend.  They’re the girl who’s obsessed with the Jayhawks but loves computer science programming; the guy who loves the Wildcats and dreams of being an artist.  (Applause.)  That’s the world you’ve grown up in.   

But remember, not everyone has grown up in a place like Topeka.  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. 

So today, by some measures, our schools are as segregated as they were back when Dr. King gave his final speech.  And as a result, many young people in America are going to school largely with kids who look just like them.  And too often, those schools aren’t equal, especially ones attended by students of color which too often lag behind, with crumbling classrooms and less experienced teachers.  And even in schools that seem integrated according to the numbers, when you look a little closer, you see students from different backgrounds sitting at separate lunch tables, or tracked into different classes, or separated into different clubs or activities. 

So while students attend school in the same building, they never really reach beyond their own circles.  And I’m sure that probably happens sometimes here in Topeka, too.  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 -- (applause) -- or they’re made to feel unwelcome because of where they come from, or they’re bullied because of who they love.  (Applause.)    

So, graduates, the truth is that Brown vs. Board of Ed. isn’t 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, our laws may no longer separate us based on our skin color, but nothing in the Constitution says we have to eat together in the lunchroom, or live together in the same neighborhoods.  There’s no court case against believing in stereotypes or thinking that certain kinds of hateful jokes or comments are funny. 

So the answers to 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.  (Applause.)  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 you meet folks who think they know all 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 lawsuit 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 by teaching others the lessons you’ve learned here in Topeka. 

Maybe that starts simply in your own family, when grandpa tells that off-colored joke at Thanksgiving, or you’ve got an aunt talks about “those people.”  Well, you can politely inform them that they’re talking about your friends.  (Applause.)  

Or maybe it’s 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 maybe it’s years from now, when you’re on the job and you’re 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, is so complicated, 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. (Applause.)   

And here’s the thing -- the stakes here 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 new breakthrough, 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 who’s been acing her science classes since kindergarten.  (Applause.)  Maybe the answer to poverty will come from the 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 always like what you have to say.  And there will be times when you’ll get frustrated or discouraged.  But whenever I start to feel that way, I just 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 grandparents, white folks born and raised right here in Kansas, products themselves of segregation.  (Applause.)  Good, honest people who helped raise their bi-racial grandson, ignoring those who would criticize that child’s very existence.  (Applause.)  And then I think about how that child grew up to be the President of the United States, and how today -- (applause) -- that little girl from Chicago is helping to raise her granddaughters in the White House.  (Applause.) 

And finally, I think about the story of a woman named Lucinda Todd who was the very first parent to sign on to Brown vs. Board of Education.  See, Lucinda’s daughter, Nancy, went to one of the all-black schools here in Topeka, and Mrs. Todd traveled across this state raising money for the case, determined to give her daughter –- and all our sons and daughters -– the education they deserve.  And today, six decades later, Mrs. Todd’s grandniece, a young woman named Kristen Jarvis, works as my right-hand woman in the White House.  She is here with me today.  (Applause.)  She has traveled with me around the world.

So if you ever start to 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.  (Applause.)  I want you to think about folks like Lucinda Todd -- folks who, as my husband once wrote, decided that “a principle is at stake,” folks who “make their claim on this community we call America” and “choose our better history.”

Every day, you have the power to choose our better history -- by opening your hearts and minds, by speaking up 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.  And I know you all can do it. 

I am so proud of all that you’ve accomplished.  This is your day.  I am here because of you.  And I cannot wait to see everything you will achieve in the years ahead.

So congratulations, once again, to the class of 2014.  I love you.  Godspeed on your journey ahead.  Thank you, all.  God bless you.  I love you.  (Applause.)

                        END                  6:54 P.M. CDT

White House Shareables