First Lady Michelle Obama Addresses Senior Appreciation Day in Topeka, Kansas
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First Lady Michelle Obama Addresses Senior Appreciation Day in Topeka, Kansas


Mrs. Obama: Thank you, guys. Thank you so much. Wow! (Applause.) Wow! 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 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 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.)

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