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Plans to Have Michelle Obama Speak at Graduation Cause a Stir in Topeka

By Evie Blad — April 18, 2014 3 min read
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Leaders of the Topeka, Kan. district excitedly announced plans Thursday to host a joint graduation ceremony for all its high schools, with first lady Michelle Obama as speaker. The event is slated to be part of the city’s commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. But the excitement quickly soured as some families of the roughly 800 seniors graduating from Topeka’s five high schools realized the combined ceremony would mean a limit to the number of guests each student could bring to graduation.

The district hasn’t publicly announced how many seats each family will be allotted, but some concerned families said district officials told them they’d be limited to four tickets, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported. Previous graduations, held separately, have not imposed limits on the number of folks each graduate can invite. Four tickets may work out just fine for an only child with one sweet grandma and a couple of doting parents, but what about a graduate who is the youngest of four children and the favorite nephew of a host of aunts and uncles?

“You simply must keep the original schedule,” Tony Trauthwein, whose daughter attends Topeka West, said at a school board meeting Thursday night, according to the Capital-Journal. “With four tickets, who are you going to tell can’t come? If it takes a village, what part of the village stays home?”

The situation has created an awkward tension between the larger desire to commemorate an important event in the history of the nation and the city (where the Brown suit originated) and the desires of individual families to recognize the accomplishments of individuals. It’s also stirred up some cynicism online from folks who are skeptical that objections from Kansans—60 percent of whom voted for Mitt Romney in the 2012 election—are entirely apolitical.

But a few parents, who described themselves as “proud Democrats,” told the school board they were merely concerned about logistical issues. As of this posting, 67 percent of respondents to a poll posted on theCapital-Journal‘s website said the district should abandon its plans for a special ceremony, and more than 1,100 people had signed this petition, asking the district to return to its original plans for separate ceremonies.

The anniversary of Brown v. Board, which marked the end to legal segregation in public schools, is an important time for the country to reflect on the progress we’ve made toward racial equality—progress that notably includes the election of the first African American president. It’s also a time to reflect on the work that remains to be done.

Topeka, home to a national historic site maintained to commemorate the case, obviously has an interest in remembering Brown. It was there that 13 parents filed suit, challenging the district’s decision to deny their 20 black children enrollment in segregated white schools. That case was combined with four others before the Supreme Court considered it.

Michelle Obama is also scheduled to speak at Dillard University and the District of Columbia College Access Program, the White House announced Thursday.

Photo: First lady Michelle Obama hugs Jenika Headley-Greene as Obama hands out diplomas during the graduation ceremony for Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Magnet High School last year in Nashville, Tenn. --Mark Humphrey/AP-File