John F. Kerry photo

Remarks on the Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas

May 17, 2004

Thank you for that generous introduction. And thank you for the invitation to join you in honoring the legacy and renewing the hopes of a Supreme Court decision that forever changed our country and our lives. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States declared that separate would never be equal, setting forth a vision of equality that continues to inspire freedom lovers and freedom movements here in America and around the globe. And it started here in Topeka.

But that is no surprise. Topeka has always been a place for making history. Two hundred years ago, Lewis and Clark mapped the sight of this city in their journey across the continent. A hundred and fifty years ago, Topeka became the free-state capital battling against pro-slavery LeCompton. And fifty years ago this very day, the next great battle for freedom was centered here in Topeka's segregated schools.

Brown summoned our country to make real the ideal of one nation and one people. A nation where one day all of God's children would live in the light of equality. A nation where, as Dr. King said later, we would be able to "transform ... into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood." Those of us who have embraced this vision redeemed the promise of America and make our country stronger.

It's hard to believe it's been fifty years since Brown. Fifty years since the color of your skin determined where you could get a drink of water. Where you could sit on the bus. Whether you had a seat at the lunch counter. And where you could go to school.

In 1954, in Topeka, there were 18 neighborhood schools for white children and just four "black only" elementary schools. Oliver Brown thought it was wrong that his seven-year-old daughter, Linda and her friends had to walk a mile through a railroad yard every day just to catch a bus to their segregated elementary school. The trip took more than an hour, and on the way, Linda walked right past the closed doors of a white elementary school just 3 blocks from her house. It was separate -- but it was not equal. The Supreme Court agreed and that decision became a turning point in America's long march toward equality.

Although the journey here isn't finished, Topeka, has been transformed these fifty years. We are joined here today by Topeka's first African American Mayor, James McClinton. And isn't it a measure of the progress we've made that Topeka has a school superintendent who 50 years ago couldn't have walked the halls of many schools in this city? Today, Tony Sawyer is not only walking the halls, he is commanding the corridors of power of the Topeka school system.

All of America is a better place because of Brown. Back then, only four percent of African Americans had college degrees. Today, nearly twenty percent are college graduates. But we have more to do.

In the 1950s, there were less than 200 black elected officials in all of America, and even fewer Hispanic Americans. Now there are more than 14,000 -- including the 59 members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Hispanic Caucus. But we have more to do.

There were no African Americans on the big corporate boards back then. Today, more than forty percent of the Fortune 1000 companies have black directors, and nearly fifteen percent have Latino directors. But we have more to do.

And while it wasn't until six years before Brown that President Truman integrated our military, I can tell you from first-hand experience that service to our country – loyalty to mission and to brother and sister soldiers on the battlefield – knows no color line. Whether we hail from the foothills of Appalachia ... the street corners of Topeka ... the neighborhoods of Flushing ... the barrios of East LA or the reservations of Arizona ... whether we are new immigrants or our descendents came here on the Mayflower or were brought here on a slave ship in shackles ... when we fight side by side in places like Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan, we're all Americans sacrificing for the same country and praying to the same God.

Today, more than ever, we need to renew our commitment to one America. 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. To rollback affirmative action – to restrict equal rights – to undermine the promise of our Constitution.

Yes, we have to defend the progress that has been made. But we also have to move the cause forward. Brown began to tear down the walls of inequality. The next great challenge is to put up a ladder of opportunity for all.

Because as far as we've come, we still have not met the promise of Brown.

We have not met the promise of Brown when one-third of all African-American children are living in poverty.

We have not met the promise of Brown when only fifty percent of African-American men in New York City have a job.

We have not met the promise of Brown when nearly twenty million black and Hispanic Americans don't have basic health insurance.

And we have certainly have not met the promise of Brown when, in too many parts of our country, our school systems are not separate but equal – but they are separate and unequal.

We haven't met the promise of Brown when a fourth-grade Hispanic child is only one third as likely to read at the same level as a fourth grade white child. When only fifty percent of African-Americans are finishing high school, and only 18 percent are graduating college. Our children will never have equal opportunity unless, once and for all, we close the ever-widening achievement gap. We know the answer is both higher expectations and greater resources. You cannot promise no child left behind and then pursue policies that leave millions of children behind. Because that promise is a promissory note to all of America's families that must be paid in full.

We cannot be content to see nearly four million students in this nation going to schools that are literally crumbling around them. We cannot be content to see those who teach the next generation treated like second-rate employees -- not like the professionals they are. We all know from our own lives that good teachers can make all the difference. Yet, today, where the best teachers are needed the most, they're too often paid the least.

So how do we honor the legacy of Brown? That question was answered some 20 years before that decision by a son of Lawrence, Kansas and one of America's greatest poets – Langston Hughes. In one of his most soul wrenching poems, Hughes challenged the nation to "Let America Be America Again." He called that generation to fulfill the unmet promise of America:

O' let my land be a land where liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

And so we honor the legacy of Brown by letting America be America – by reaffirming the value of inclusion, equality, and diversity in our schools and across the life of our nation. By opening the doors of opportunity, so that more of our young people can stay in school and out of prison. By lifting more of our people out of poverty, expanding the middle class, providing health care, and bringing jobs, hope and opportunity to all the neighborhoods of the forgotten America.

We must let America be America again. We must work together to turn back the creeping tide of division that Thurgood Marshall and so many others fought so hard against.

We must never forget that the Brown decision came in the wake of World War II, when African-American soldiers helped to save freedom in the world, only to return to brutal inequality at home. They did not ask for special treatment or extra help; they just wanted the fullness of freedom in their own lives. They wanted to see the end of the "white only" signs at the restaurants and movie theaters, at school house doors and department stores– and they wanted to see an end to the invisible, but all too real "white only" sign that reached from Congress into every great corporation and into businesses in small towns.

And when I joined so many other veterans of Vietnam for a return without welcome to America I saw first hand how those on the front lines of combat, black and brown, who had been casualties in greater numbers than the representation of our population, were shunned even after service. Their unemployment numbers were higher. Their opportunities were less than those with whom they had served and the ravages of post-war trauma fell even more heavily on their families and their lives.

The memory of all of these patriots and the decision we commemorate today calls us again to the America we must become. Our brave men and women who are on frontlines far away deserve no less. For them and for our country, fifty years after Brown we have only just begun. For America to be America for any of us, America must be America for all of us.

Thank you and God bless you.

John F. Kerry, Remarks on the Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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