TOPEKA, Kan. – Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) said Monday the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision declaring school segregation unconstitutional comes amid too many instances of inequality in the nation and too many forces seeking to divide Americans.
Kerry, joining a host of civil rights leaders at a ceremony marking the 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education (search) case, 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.
Black Topeka parents who wanted to send their children to nearby whites-only schools launched the case. At the time the Supreme Court handed down the decision, fewer than 4 percent of black Americans had college degrees, a number that has risen to 20 percent. The number of black lawyers and judges has jumped from 2,800 to more than 50,000, Kerry said.
"We have to defend the progress that has been made, but we also have to move the cause forward," he said.
Kerry took indirect jabs at President Bush, who was arriving in Topeka later Monday for a similar ceremony.
"Brown began to tear down the walls of inequality," Kerry said. "The next great challenge is to put up a ladder of opportunity for all."
Kerry routinely charges on the stump that Bush has drained money for schools, leaving those in blighted areas struggling. While racial segregation may be ended, he said, millions of children get a second-class education because they are poor.
"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.
Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt noted that the president was marking the day as well and faulted Kerry for "introducing partisan invective into this historic anniversary."
Kerry's campaign was far more direct in its criticism of the president, releasing background documents accusing Bush of appointing "radical right-wing judges" and charging that "the Justice Department's civil rights division has been effectively closed."
While the president has used his No Child Left Behind (search) law as a centerpiece of his domestic social agenda, Kerry scoffed at that, arguing that this year alone Bush's budget is $9.4 billion short of financing the measure.
"You cannot promise no child left behind and then pursue policies that leave millions of children behind," he said. "Because that promise is a promissory note to all of America's families that must be paid in full."
Joining Kerry were Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius; Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus; civil rights leader Jesse Jackson; and Wade Henderson, head of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
Before heading to Kansas, Kerry courted Teamsters union leaders in Las Vegas, Nev., by arguing that Bush has turned his back on the American worker by allowing other countries to break trade deals. As president, he said, he would put in place a "commonsense" effort to strengthen the negotiation and enforcement of such agreements.
"When I am president, we will never turn a blind eye to clear trade violations when American jobs are on the line," Kerry told several thousand cheering delegates to a Teamsters convention. He said, however, that he would push for trade agreements. "I'm not a protectionist," he said. "I don't think that most people who are reasonable expect that."
Teamsters president James Hoffa conceded that Kerry has voted for trade deals that labor opposed, but he said he is convinced Kerry has seen the error of his ways.
One way Kerry could energize labor would be to tap Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, who enjoys strong union support, as his running mate, Hoffa said.
"I told him to put Dick Gephardt in as the vice president," Hoffa told reporters.