TOPEKA, Kan. - In separate speeches yesterday, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry hailed the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed state-sanctioned school segregation, but they also cautioned 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 at a school in Topeka, Bush said anti-discrimination 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 the state Capitol, Kerry heralded the impact of the 50-year-old Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling, saying it "continues to inspire freedom-lovers and freedom movements here in America and around the globe."
Although the Massachusetts senator focused most of his remarks on the decision's importance and did not mention Bush by name, he directed a few veiled criticisms at the president, whom Democrats have accused of trying to undermine civil rights advances by opposing some affirmative action programs and through his nominations of conservative judges to the federal judiciary.
"We should not delude ourselves into thinking for an instant that ... the work of [the ruling] 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," Kerry said.
Kerry left Topeka shortly before Bush arrived aboard Air Force One. It was the closest the two have come to sharing a venue so far in the general election campaign.
Kerry's stop was paid for by his campaign. Bush's trip was an official White House visit that was taxpayer-financed. Bush kept his remarks nonpartisan and made no reference to Kerry.
Bush spoke at the once all-black Monroe Elementary School that was officially dedicated yesterday as the Brown vs. the Board of Education national historic site.
The ruling, which outlawed "separate but equal" schools, was the first of several court decisions that brought greater rights to blacks and other minorities.
"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.
"The Brown ruling really ended apartheid in this country. Not as quickly as we could have hoped, but it put the country on the road to diversity," 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 while both Bush and Kerry lauded the ending of school segregation, neither mentioned what many view as a key civil rights issue of this generation.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.