The scene was set for an old-fashioned duel, or the political equivalent, when George W. Bush and John Kerry both made stops in Topeka, Kan. last Monday. Instead of swords, their weapons of choice were speeches. But only Sen. Kerry thrust and parried; President Bush chose discretion, allowing an important anniversary rather than a campaign barrage to carry the day. He also claimed the visit as an official one. That means the government picked up the bill and the president made a brief, formal address, not a stump speech.
Neither candidate would allow himself to upstage the commemoration of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that launched the modern civil-rights movement. And the Topeka Capital-Journal certainly did its best to keep the two presidential candidates from overshadowing the day's ceremonies. The presidential visit, Kansas' first since 1997, earned only a scant mention in the May 17 edition.
The week before the anniversary, the Wichita Eagle had noted those seven years since a presidential visit. Last week, with Kansas firmly in Mr. Bush's electoral pocket, neither he nor Mr. Kerry had political reasons to come to Topeka except possibly to influence black voters in other states. But both parties' loyalists jumped on the rare opportunity. Democrats filled shuttle buses to see the presumptive nominee at the state capitol while thousands of Republicans snatched up tickets a week in advance to see the president.
John Kerry's speech came first, before a capitol crowd of nearly 1,500. Civil-rights leaders and Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Elijah Cummings warmed the highly Democratic audience: "I am concerned about Osama bin Laden. I am concerned about terrorists. But ladies and gentleman: Our greatest threat to our national security is the failure to educate our children."
Ardent Kerry supporters stood near the southern boundary of the capitol lawn showing off buttons casting aspersions on President Bush or calling for another J.F.K. Sen. Kerry was received warmly but not wildly. He spoke of America's lack of progress since 1954. "As far as we've come, we still haven't met the promise of Brown," he said "We have not met the promise of Brown when one-third of African-American children still are living in poverty."
He also worked in Vietnam references: "I can tell you from first hand. Service in the military knows no color line." Then he dished out one of his few charged comments: "It's not a political statement, it's a fact. You cannot promise no child left behind and then pursue policies that leave millions behind every day. Because that is a promissory note that must be paid in full."
Not everyone came to the Kerry event to support civil rights. One man wearing a polo shirt, khaki pants, and a sleeping bag thrown over his shoulder, jumped up on a table afterwards and declared, "Equal Cannabis Rights, man. Free marijuana. Fund your schools, everything!" He paused, then shouted a prime four-letter word before jumping off the table and thanking wide-eyed state troopers for the latitude he was allowed. Across the street, Topeka preacher Fred Phelps's brigade of "God Hates Fags" placard-bearing shock troops lined the street with one sign that had the words "NAACP" and "Fags" and two men committing a lurid act.
Mr. Phelps's troops then moved seven blocks southeast to near the old Monroe Elementary School, one of four segregated schools for black children before the 1954 decision. The preacher's 47-year-old daughter and 20-year-old grandson, both toting banners, entered a fenced-in area around Monroe Elementary School and took positions standing on chairs. After refusing a park ranger's order to get down and put away their banners, the two were arrested. Signs and banners were not allowed inside the fence at the Bush event.
On the 50th anniversary, the National Park Service opened the Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site with an outdoor ceremony. The program included an impromptu flyover from Air Force One and a 12-minute speech by President Bush a half-hour later. Mr. Cummings and NAACP officials delivered the same fiery speeches at the president's ceremony as they did uptown at the state capitol. There, wild cheers greeted them, but at the school in front of a Republican audience, the speakers received only polite applause.
Most of the nearly 4,000 people on hand loudly cheered Mr. Bush as he arrived, but his official speech made him sound more historian than politician. He recounted the history and aftermath of the Supreme Court decision rather than casting it in political terms. "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," he 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."
The president praised the Supreme Court decision whereby Jim Crow laws guaranteeing "separate but equal" classrooms lost any judicial backing. But Mr. Bush acknowledged how much work must be done to fix the poor schools in America to which inner-city students, often black, are assigned. Mr. Bush and Republicans have lately tried to turn some African-Americans into swing voters, and the president had hoped that his No Child Left Behind education bill could win their hearts and minds, but he has a long way to go: Black voters supported Al Gore 9-1 over Mr. Bush in the 2000 race.
In the newspapers the next day after, The New York Times reported that the president's crowd was mostly white, without mentioning the racial composition of the Kerry crowd, which also was almost mostly white-no surprise in Kansas. Fifty years after the crucial school desegregation ruling, Americans of all races and both major parties overwhelmingly understand that segregation was wrong, one of the few understandings that unite us.