TOPEKA, Kan. - President Bush and Sen. John Kerry separately hailed the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed state-sanctioned school segregation, but they also cautioned Monday that the decision's full promise has not been achieved.
"America has yet to reach the high calling of its own ideals," Bush said.
Addressing a racially mixed crowd of about 4,000, the president said antidiscrimination laws in education, housing, hiring and public accommodations must be "vigorously enforced" because "the habits of racism in America have not all been broken."
The presidential rivals spoke at separate events commemorating the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, in which a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that the doctrine of "separate but equal" education for blacks and whites was unconstitutional. The decision triggered massive resistance in the South but marked the beginning of a civil rights movement that led to racial protections in public accommodations, voting rights, housing and employment.
Bush spoke at the grand opening for a historic site at the two-story brick Monroe Elementary School, one of the four segregated elementary schools that black children in Topeka were forced to attend in 1954."We remember with gratitude the good souls who saw a great wrong, and stood their ground, and won their case," Bush said in a sunny yard, with the doors of the 78-year-old school behind him.
Kerry, appearing six blocks away at the Kansas capitol just over four hours earlier, said that defending the progress achieved since Brown is only part of the challenge of fulfilling the promise of the decision. The presumptive Democratic nominee said that minorities still suffer higher rates of poverty and joblessness than whites do and that too many school systems in America today "are separate and unequal."
"Brown began to tear down the walls of inequality," he said. "The next great challenge is to put up a ladder of opportunity for all."
Monday's events marked the first time Bush and Kerry had traveled to the same place to talk about the same subject since the presidential campaign opened, and even though advisers to both candidates described the appearances as nonpolitical, there was an undercurrent of politics throughout the day.
Kerry shared the stage with many national leaders of the civil rights movement, some of whom had been invited to attend the later event with the president but chose to appear with Kerry instead, according to Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
Bush, who won less than 10 percent of the African-American vote in 2000, received a friendly reception from the crowd at his event. He left the podium with a big wave and his arm around Cheryl Brown Henderson, president of the Brown Foundation and one of three daughters of the late Oliver Brown, whose lawsuit with 12 other families culminated in the historic ruling. She also spoke at the morning event at the capitol.
- Information from the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post was used in this report.