TOPEKA, Kan. – Half a century after the Supreme Court banned school segregation, President Bush and Democratic rival John Kerry (search) found agreement Monday on the point that America still falls short of racial equality despite progress across many fronts.
"The habits of racism in America have not all been broken," Bush said. "The habits of respect must be taught to every generation." He spoke outside the once all-black Monroe Elementary School in Topeka, central to the unanimous ruling that outlawed a "separate but equal" doctrine.
Kerry, several hours earlier and several blocks away, stood on the steps of the state Capitol and said, "We have to defend the progress that has been made, but we also have to move the cause forward." He blamed many persistent problems on the Bush administration.
Bush hopes to make election-year inroads among black Americans skeptical of his commitment to equal opportunity. In 2000, blacks supported Democrat Al Gore (search) by a 9-1 margin.
"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.
"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." He said the ruling "changed America for the better — and forever."
With the two-story brick schoolhouse behind him, Bush spoke to adults who lived through the civil rights era and kids just learning about the Brown case.
Kerry, speaking to an audience that included civil rights leaders, said that half a century after the 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education (search) case, 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, Kerry said.
"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.
Kerry took several clear jabs at Bush. He said many schools remain "separate and unequal" and warned that some in government are 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.
Bush opposes affirmative action programs for minorities.
Kerry's campaign released 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 education-overhaul "No Child Left Behind" law as a centerpiece, Kerry argued that Bush's budget this year 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.
Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt accused Kerry of "introducing partisan invective into this historic anniversary."
Bush's speech was billed by the White House as official rather than political, meaning the costs were paid by the government. Bush spoke for 12 minutes and did not mention Kerry. Later, he went to Atlanta for a fund-raising dinner at the home of Robert Nardelli, chief executive officer of Home Depot. The event, closed to the press, was expected to raise $3.2 million for the GOP's "Victory 2004" get-out-the-vote fund.
Monroe Elementary, now the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site (search), was the school of 9-year-old Linda Brown, the daughter of the lead plaintiff, the Rev. Oliver Brown.
The landmark case began in 1951 after several black families in Topeka tried to enroll their children in white schools near their homes and their requests were denied. Thirteen black families became plaintiffs in a case filed in federal district court in Topeka.
School desegregation cases from Virginia, South Carolina and Delaware were also appealed to the Supreme Court and decided collectively as Brown.
When Bush's father as president, in 1992, he signed the law that turned Monroe into a national landmark.
It was Bush's first visit as president to Kansas, a state he won comfortably in 2000.