Topeka Students Don’t Want Michelle Obama at Graduation

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A lot of high school seniors would be excited to have First Lady Michelle Obama deliver their commencement speech. But a group of soon-to-be graduates in Topeka, Kansas, say if it means having fewer seats for their families or a political ceremony, then no thanks.


Obama is set to give a commencement address at a joint ceremony for five high schools in the Topeka area on May 17. The timing coincides with the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case, which was brought against Topeka by African-American parents. The ruling ultimately banned outright segregation.

Some students and parents have expressed reservations that if the first lady focuses on the anniversary, it will detract attention from the graduates and their accomplishments.

“I have read the articles in The Topeka Capital-Journal about Michelle Obama’s graduation speech for the Topeka Unified School District 501 seniors,” a commenter identified as Carol Essman wrote to the Topeka Capital-Journal. “I have just one question. Would she have accepted the offer if the Brown v. Board of Education anniversary had not coincided with graduation services? I think not.”

But the school district itself has actually touted the fact that the first lady will speak at a “historic commencement that will mark the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.”

A spokeswoman for the first lady’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the contents of her speech, but it is worth noting that Michelle Obama does not typically deliver overtly political speeches. Judging by past speeches, Obama will likely make brief mention of the Brown v. Board anniversary, but focus on the graduates and their future endeavors.

However, the potential for politicization of their day isn’t the only problem, the students argue. They have a much more tangible concern, namely seating arrangements. They’re worried that having the first lady in attendance — with her secret service detail and the potential for V.I.P. guests — will limit their ability to invite friends and family.


One student, identifying herself as Taylor Rose, launched a petition to keep the graduation ceremonies for each of the high schools separate, whether that means the first lady speaks or not. The petition had nearly 2,500 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.

Ron Harbaugh, a spokesman for the Topeka school district, told Fusion he thinks just one or two percent of affected students and their families are upset, noting that he’s received positive emails and phone calls from people approving of the first lady’s attendance.


“We’re looking forward to it,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for our students.”

Conservative outlets have jumped on the criticism, with splashy headlines like “Michelle Obama wreaks havoc across Topeka with last-minute decision to speak at graduation.”


A back-to-school address by President Barack Obama drew similar criticism in 2009, with conservative pundits like Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin accusing the president of trying to unduly influence students. The White House eventually released the contents of his speech in advance of its delivery in an effort to allay some of the uproar.

Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.