Bush, Kerry mark Brown anniversary
Both men cite need for more progress in schools
TOPEKA, Kansas (CNN) -- President Bush and Sen. John Kerry marked the 50th anniversary of a landmark Supreme Court decision on school integration with separate speeches Monday that hailed progress in the fight for racial equality but said the battle was not won.
Their speeches played out against the backdrop of the upcoming presidential election, as Republicans try to break what has been a virtual lock by Democrats on the African-American vote when it comes to the White House.
Both Bush and Kerry -- his likely Democratic rival in November -- hailed the court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. That decision struck down the "separate but equal" practice of segregating students by race.
Bush called the decision a "long time coming" and Kerry called the country "a better place because of Brown."
Their speeches were similar. Both men offered warm praise for those families and civil rights leaders who challenged the segregation laws of that time. Both men spoke of lingering racial disparities in opportunity and achievement within America's schools. And both men said the dream of a society were race does not matter had not yet been realized.
"Segregation is a living memory, and many still carry its scars," Bush said. "The habits of racism in America have not all been broken."
Kerry's speech never mentioned Bush by name, but the senator took a swipe at the administration's policies, particularly education.
"You cannot promise no child left behind and then pursue policies that leave millions of children behind," Kerry said, referring to a White House education measure that calls for more testing of both students and teachers and ties funding, in part, to success at individual schools.
Democrats have charged the administration and the Republican-controlled Congress have not provided states and schools with enough money to comply with some of the new requirements.
Kerry's campaign distributed a critical assessment of Bush's record on civil rights, citing his opposition to affirmative action programs and the Justice Department's handling of various civil rights cases.
"Today, more than ever, we need to renew our commitment to one America," Kerry said. "We should not delude ourselves into thinking that the work of Brown is done when there are those who still seek, in different ways, to see it undone. To rollback affirmative action -- to restrict equal rights --- to undermine the promise of our Constitution."
In his speech, Bush also steered clear of any mention of his opponent. And he also avoided any specific discussion of his policies.
He did, however, make a general reference to his education policy.
"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."
Bush has criticized schools for what he's called the "soft bigotry of low expectations," saying some schools move minority students through the system without making sure they've met basic academic standards.
Kerry spoke first at a commemoration ceremony on the steps of the Kansas state Capitol. Bush appeared in the afternoon at the former Monroe Elementary School, one of the schools at issue in the case and now a national historic site.
In 2000, Bush won roughly 9 percent of the African-American vote. While Bush has said he wants to win a great share of that vote, a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that Kerry has the support of 87 percent of likely African-American voters.