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Integration anniversary draws Bush, Kerry

President Bush and rival John Kerry marked 50 years of school integration at the symbolic home of the movement, celebrating at separate events what became a turning point in national race relations.
President Bush is escorted Monday in Topeka, Kan., at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site by Cheryl Brown Henderson, head of the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research.Gerald Herbert / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bush marked a half-century of school integration at the symbolic home of the movement Monday, saying “it changed America for the better, and forever.”

“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,” Bush said at the opening of a national historic site at Monroe Elementary, a former all-black school in the heartland of the school desegregation effort.

“Here on the corner of 15th and Monroe, and in schools like it across America, that was a day of justice, and it was a long time coming,” the president said.

But Bush said America still faces challenges.

Respect vs. racism
“The habits of racism in America have not all been broken,” he said. “The habits of respect must be taught to every generation.” He said laws against discrimination should be vigorously enforced.

“While our schools are no longer segregated by law, they are still not equal in opportunity and excellence,” Bush said. “Justice requires more than a place in a school. Justice requires that every school teach every child in America.”

Monday marked 50 years since one of the signature legal decisions of the 20th century, the Supreme Court ruling that separating students by race was inherently unequal and unconstitutional. The Brown v. Board of Education ruling — named for a challenge in Topeka but encompassing five different cases — helped energize the civil rights movement, although resistance delayed desegregation for years.

Bush’s speech comes at a time when, through a recent campaign swing and television ads, he tries to restore attention to his original domestic priority: improving education. Honoring a turning point in race relations, Bush hoped to make some inroads himself among black Americans skeptical of his commitment to equal opportunity. He drew just 9 percent of the black vote in 2000.

From Kansas, he was heading to Atlanta for a GOP fund raiser.

With the two-story brick schoolhouse behind him, Bush spoke to adults who lived through the civil rights era and children just learning about the Brown case.

No Child Left Behind Act
His administration describes the No Child Left Behind Act as an extension of the Brown case because the education law seeks to end what Bush calls a bigotry of low expectations for minorities.

But the president increasingly finds the law he championed to be a tough sell, as schools struggle to meet goals and lawmakers, mainly Democrats, say much more federal money is needed.

The president was accompanied to Topeka by Education Secretary Rod Paige, his appointee and the first black person to hold the Cabinet post.

Bush, who opposes affirmative action programs for minorities, is unlikely to win over many black voters, said David Bositis, a political scientist at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank focused on black issues.

“The negative feelings in general — the war in Iraq, a whole variety of issues — carry over into education,” Bositis said. “Even if there were parts of No Child Left Behind that are potentially very positive educational reforms, it doesn’t matter anymore, because I think the attitude among many African-Americans is it’s time for Bush to go back to Crawford, Texas.”

'Separate and unequal,' Kerry says
Bush and Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts have been running close nationally on the question of who would do a better job on education. Bush is widely credited for helping the Republican Party claim ground in public education, with a focus on getting top teachers in all core classes and holding schools accountable for record increases in federal spending.

Kerry attended a different Brown ceremony in Topeka, contending that schools remain “separate and unequal” and warning that some were trying to reverse the gains made in civil rights, including affirmative action. Millions of children get a second-class education because they are poor, he said.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., talks with U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, left, at a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education decision, Monday, May 17, 2004, in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)Charlie Neibergall / AP

Kerry, joining a host of civil rights leaders, said schools remain underfunded and divided by income, the health care system has too many disparities by race, and one-third of black children live in poverty.

“Today, more than ever, we need to renew our commitment to one America,” Kerry said on the steps of the Kansas Statehouse with hundreds of schoolchildren as a backdrop.

“We should not delude ourselves into thinking for an instant that because Brown represents the law we have achieved our goal, that the work of Brown is done when there are those who still seek, in different ways, to see it undone — to roll back affirmative action, to restrict equal rights, to undermine the promise of our Constitution,” he said.

The 50th anniversary observances come with mixed views about the educational progress of blacks, as separate facilities are long gone but blacks continue to lag between whites in academic achievement.

Only 2 percent of blacks age 25 and older were college graduates in 1952; that number climbed to 17 percent by 2002. The percent of blacks 25 and older who had at least a high school diploma rose from 15 percent to 79 percent during the same period, the Census Bureau reports.

Yet, only 13 percent of black fourth-graders and eighth-graders were proficient or better in reading on a national test in 2003, compared with 41 percent of white students.