WASHINGTON – President Bush marked a half-century of school integration (search) 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.
"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 (search) 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.
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.
Bush had no plans to turn the his commemoration into a speech about the law, aides said, instead focusing on progress in race relations and what still must be accomplished.
It was Bush's father who, as president in 1992, signed the law that turned Monroe Elementary into a national landmark. Now the younger Bush was in Kansas, a state he won comfortably in 2000, and one he had not previously visited as president.
In 2000, blacks supported Al Gore over Bush by a 9-1 margin.
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 (search) 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 (search) 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."
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 on Monday, 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.
"We have certainly not met the promise of Brown when, in too many parts of our country, our school systems are not separate but equal, but separate and unequal," Kerry said on the steps of the Kansas Statehouse.
Unlike most of Bush's fund raisers, his appearance in the home of an Atlanta supporter Monday night was closed to the news media. Bush campaign officials have told backers that the campaign's policy of barring journalists from private homes is one advantage of holding them there instead of the usual hotel ballrooms where Bush raises money.