The 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka drew President Bush and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts to separate appearances last week in the city where the case originated, even while both said that the decision’s vision of equal educational opportunity had yet to be fulfilled.
“Fifty years ago today, nine judges announced that they had looked at the Constitution and saw no justification for the segregation and humiliation of an entire race,” President Bush said during the dedication of a national historic site and museum at the Monroe School in Topeka, Kan., one of four elementary schools in the city once designated for black students.
“Here at the corner of 15th and Monroe, and at schools like it across America, that was a day of justice—and it was a long time coming,” Mr. Bush said in a relatively short but eloquent address on May 17 to an audience that included U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, and Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer.
Earlier in the day, Sen. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, spoke on the steps of the state Capitol, where Gov. Sebelius, a Democrat, signed a proclamation marking the Brown anniversary.
“All of America is a better place because of Brown,” Mr. Kerry said in prepared remarks. “But we have more to do. ...
“We should not delude ourselves into thinking that the work of Brown is done when there are those who still seek, in different ways, to see it undone,” he said. “To roll back affirmative action, to restrict equal rights, to undermine the promise of our Constitution.”
Mr. Kerry used the occasion to argue that Mr. Bush had not ensured adequate funding of the main federal education law.
“You cannot promise no child left behind and then pursue policies that leave millions of children behind every single day,” he said, according to The New York Times. “Because that promise is a promissory note to all of America’s families that must be paid in full.”
Mr. Bush’s speech avoided references to politics and only briefly alluded to the No Child Left Behind Act.
"[W]hile our schools are no longer segregated by law, they are not equal in opportunity and excellence,” the president said. “Justice requires more than a place in a school. Justice requires that every school teach every child in America.”
The two candidates did not cross paths. Sen. Kerry’s plane left Topeka shortly before the president arrived aboard Air Force One.
Secretary Paige, also speaking at the Brown museum event, reflected on his own memories of racism.
“I grew up in rural, segregated Mississippi,” he said in prepared remarks. “We lived with segregation and the racism that inspired it every single day. … By example, many of our schools taught inequality, incivility, callousness, disregard, exclusion, and disrespect.”
Mr. Paige repeated his argument that the No Child Left Behind Act picks up on the work begun with the Brown decision.
“Brown opened the doors of our schools,” he said. “Now we must build on that decision to make education fully inclusive and fair. That’s why there are efforts like the No Child Left Behind Act, the next logical step to Brown because it tries to provide equal opportunity in fact as well as law.”
In one of the Supreme Court’s few official acknowledgments of the anniversary of one of its most significant decisions, Justice Breyer also spoke at the Monroe School event.
“May 17, 1954, was a great day—many would say the greatest day—in the history of [the Supreme Court],” he said in prepared remarks. “Brown’s simple affirmation helped us all to understand that our Constitution was meant to create not a democracy just written on paper, but a democracy that works in practice. … “
In an initiative timed for the anniversary, a Wall Street investor, Alphonse Fletcher Jr., announced that he would donate $50 million to individuals and institutions working to improve race relations and ensure better opportunities, including educational opportunities, for African-Americans.
Mr. Fletcher, the founder and chairman of Fletcher Asset Management, planned to give part of the gift to the Howard University School of Law, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which all played pivotal roles in the original Brown cases, as well as to the Comer School Development Program at Yale University. That program is charged with implementing a school and systemwide intervention formulated by James P. Comer, a Yale professor of child psychiatry.
A version of this article appeared in the May 26, 2004 edition of Education Week as Brown Anniversary Observed In Topeka by Bush and Kerry