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Bush, Kerry Extol Brown Ruling, Separately

The president and his Democratic rival commemorate the high court decision, but say discrimination has not been overcome.

May 18, 2004|Edwin Chen and Matea Gold | Times Staff Writers

TOPEKA, Kan. — In separate speeches here, President Bush and John F. Kerry on Monday hailed the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed state-sanctioned school segregation, but they also cautioned that the decision's full promise had 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."

Earlier, at a ceremony on the steps of Kansas' ornate state Capitol, Kerry heralded the impact of the 50-year-old Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, saying it "continues to inspire freedom lovers and freedom movements here in America and around the globe."

Although the presumed Democratic presidential nominee focused his remarks on the decision's importance and did not mention Bush by name, he directed a few veiled criticisms at the president.

"We should not delude ourselves into thinking for an instant that

Kerry left Topeka shortly before Bush arrived aboard Air Force One. Still, it was the closest the two have come to sharing a venue so far in the general election campaign.

Kerry's stop in Topeka was paid for by his campaign. Bush's trip was an official White House visit that was taxpayer-financed.

Bush spoke at the once all-black Monroe Elementary School that was officially dedicated Monday as the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site.

Along with the two political rivals, civil rights leaders and other national and state officials gathered in this city of 120,000 to praise a Supreme Court decision that Justice Stephen G. Breyer said in a speech here Monday marked "the greatest day in the history of that institution."

The ruling, which outlawed "separate but equal" schools, was the first of several court decisions that brought greater rights to African Americans and other minorities.

The landmark case began in 1951 when several black families in Topeka filed a federal lawsuit saying they had tried to enroll their children in white schools and were denied. The lawsuit was joined with desegregation cases from different states.

"It truly was about much more than just education," said Nancy Zirkin, deputy director of the Washington-based Leadership Council on Civil Rights.

"The decision ushered in ... legislation that was to follow,'' including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that demolished laws that had blocked many blacks from voting in some Southern states, she said.

The celebrations of the Brown decision came on the same day that the nation's first state-sanctioned same-sex marriages took place in Massachusetts. But although both Bush and Kerry lauded the ending of school segregation, neither mentioned what many view as today's key civil rights issue.

Kerry addressed a crowd of about 1,500, framed by 350 schoolchildren in matching blue shirts standing behind him.

In a 19-minute speech, Kerry pointed to the rates of poverty and unemployment for the nation's minorities as evidence that the task was unfinished.

"We must work together to turn back the creeping tide of division that Thurgood Marshall and so many others fought so hard against," he said, referring to the former NAACP attorney who argued the Brown case before the Supreme Court and later was appointed to its bench.

Kerry drew a standing ovation when he criticized Bush's education policies. "It is not a political statement -- it is common sense and it is a matter of truth to say to America, you cannot promise 'no child left behind' and then pursue policies that leave millions of children behind every single day," Kerry said.

Kerry and other Democrats charge that Bush has not pushed for enough funding to fulfill the goals of the administration's No Child Left Behind school reform act. Bush has disputed those charges.

A Bush campaign spokeswoman, Tracey Schmitt, later chastised Kerry for his comments.

"It's disappointing that John Kerry demonstrates not only a willingness but an eagerness to launch angry attacks on a day that transcends campaign politics," Schmitt said.

When Kerry's speech and others at the Capitol were over, many in the crowd walked the six blocks to hear Bush's speech at Monroe, once among four all-black schools in Topeka.

As the crowd sweltered under a hot sun waiting for the president to arrive, Air Force One did a fly-by almost directly above the event site, causing a ruckus even as the 16th Street Baptist Church Choir was belting out "Let There Be Peace on Earth."

Bush in his 12-minute speech commended the Supreme Court justices involved in the Brown decision, saying they "looked at the Constitution and saw no justification for the segregation and humiliation of an entire race."

He also praised the spirit of "a generation of African Americans who grew up and grew old under laws designed to demean them."

One audience member at the Bush speech said he was disappointed the president and Kerry did not appear together.

"All this grandstanding, two speeches on the same day, at different places," said Richard Atkinson Jr. "They should have been on the same platform. I don't see any reason why they weren't. For a historical day such as this one, they should have left their politics at home."

As the Kerry camp scrambled to take off before Bush landed, a relaxed-looking candidate walked to the back of his 727 chartered jet.

"You're not staying around for what's-his-name?" he asked one reporter, flashing a sly grin. "What's his name, again?"

*

Times staff writer John M. Glionna in Topeka contributed to this report.

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