WASHINGTON — With veterans of the civil rights movement at her side, first lady Michelle Obama said Friday that the most important issue facing blacks today is education.

“These women represent many different facets and eras of the movement,” Obama said as she hosted an event marking Black History Month with veterans of the civil rights movement. “But there is something that connects each of their stories, a common thread that animates their lives, and that is their hunger for and belief in the power of education.”

She was joined at the White House by a panel that included women of the civil rights movement including two who broke down barriers to attend school: Charlayne Hunter-Gault, one of the first to desegregate the University of Georgia, and Carlotta Walls LaNier, the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine, the group of black high school students barred from entering Arkansas’ racially segregated Little Rock Central High School.

LaNier and Hunter-Gault often faced physical resistance while attempting to receive an education.

Obama said that children today still fail to meet their full potential, even if there are no mobs with bricks and bottles to ward young black women away from higher education.

“Nobody needs a military escort to get to class. But that doesn’t mean that our children don’t still face struggles when it comes to education,” she said.

While the high school graduation rate for black students is on the rise, it remains the lowest rate of all the racial groups in the country.

Because of that, Obama urged the young women in attendance to go to school no matter what — even the “bad” schools with crumbling facilities and outdated technology. She insisted that if children fall behind in school, they fall behind in life.

“If we really want to solve issues like mass incarceration, poverty, racial profiling, voting rights, and the kinds of challenges that shocked so many of us over the past year, then we simply cannot afford to lose out on the potential of even one young person,” she said. “We cannot allow even one more young person to fall through the cracks.”

Obama, a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, heads the Reach Higher initiative, an effort to boost the desire for post-secondary education in high schoolers.

Essence magazine co-hosted the event, which took place just days after the publication’s first cover without a photo in 45 years. Instead were the words, “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” Essence editor-in-chief Vanessa K. DeLuca moderated the panel discussion, which focused conversation on the women’s own educational experiences and how those fueled and must continue to fuel social progress across generations.

“Education is still the key to success,” said LaNier. “Be prepared to open that door. You need all the education you can possibly get, because that door might be a crack or flung wide open.”