President Obama’s Challenging Commencement Address at Howard University

On May 7 President Barack Obama delivered a fascinating and challenging commencement address at Washington, D.C.’s Howard University for over 2,100 graduates with bachelor, masters, Ph.D. and professional degrees and an audience of over 25,000.[1] Below are photographs of President Obama during his address and of the graduates and audience at Howard.

Obama at Howard

cmmencement-banner

 

 

 

Although the primary addresses for the speech were the predominantly African-American Howard graduates and audience, it also is a message for every U.S. citizen and others. The following extensive excerpts of that speech will be used in a subsequent post to evaluate two prominent contemporary African-American men—Bryan Stevenson and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The President’s Address[2]

Commendation of Howard University

Not surprisingly Obama opened with commendation of Howard University, a federally chartered, private, doctoral university, classified as a high research activity institution. With an enrollment of more than 10,000 students, its undergraduate, graduate, professional and joint degree programs span more than 120 areas of study within 13 schools and colleges.

“The Freedman’s Bureau,” he said, “established Howard [in 1867] just four years after the Emancipation Proclamation; just two years after the Civil War came to an end.  They created this university with a vision — a vision of uplift; a vision for an America where our fates would be determined not by our race, gender, religion or creed, but where we would be free — in every sense — to pursue our individual and collective dreams.”

“It is that spirit that’s made Howard a centerpiece of African-American intellectual life and a central part of our larger American story.  This institution has been the home of many firsts:  The first black Nobel Peace Prize winner [Ralph Bunche].  The first black Supreme Court justice [Thurgood Marshall]. But its mission has been to ensure those firsts were not the last.  Countless scholars, professionals, artists, and leaders from every field received their training here.  The generations of men and women who walked through this yard helped reform our government, cure disease, grow a black middle class, advance civil rights, shape our culture.  The seeds of change — for all Americans — were sown here.”

Comparison of 1983 and 2016

“America is a better place today than it was when I graduated from college [1983]. “

“I tell you all this because it’s important to note progress.  Because to deny how far we’ve come would do a disservice to the cause of justice, to the legions of foot soldiers; to not only the incredibly accomplished individuals who have already been mentioned, but your mothers and your dads, and grandparents and great grandparents, who marched and toiled and suffered and overcame to make this day possible.  I tell you this not to lull you into complacency, but to spur you into action — because there’s still so much more work to do, so many more miles to travel.”

“We’ve got a justice gap when too many black boys and girls pass through a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails.  This is one area where things have gotten worse.  When I was in college, about half a million people in America were behind bars.  Today, there are about 2.2 million.  Black men are about six times likelier to be in prison right now than white men.”

Charge to the Graduating Class 

Obama then delivered a long, three-point charge to the graduating class.

“First , . . . be confident in your heritage.  Be confident in your blackness.  One of the great changes that’s occurred in our country since I was your age is the realization there’s no one way to be black. . . . There’s no straitjacket, there’s no constraints, there’s no litmus test for authenticity.”

“You can write a book that wins the National Book Award, or you can write the new run of “Black Panther.”  Or, like one of your alumni, Ta-Nehisi Coates, you can go ahead and just do both.  You can create your own style, set your own standard of beauty, embrace your own sexuality.”

“Second, even as we each embrace our own beautiful, unique, and valid versions of our blackness, remember the tie that does bind us as African-Americans — and that is our particular awareness of injustice and unfairness and struggle.  That means we cannot sleepwalk through life.  We cannot be ignorant of history. We can’t meet the world with a sense of entitlement.  We can’t walk by a homeless man without asking why a society as wealthy as ours allows that state of affairs to occur. We can’t just lock up a low-level dealer without asking why this boy, barely out of childhood, felt he had no other options.  We have cousins and uncles and brothers and sisters who we remember were just as smart and just as talented as we were, but somehow got ground down by structures that are unfair and unjust.”

“And that means we have to not only question the world as it is, and stand up for those African-Americans who haven’t been so lucky — because, yes, you’ve worked hard, but you’ve also been lucky. . . . People who have been successful and don’t realize they’ve been lucky.  That God may have blessed them; it wasn’t nothing you did.  So don’t have an attitude.  But we must expand our moral imaginations to understand and empathize with all people who are struggling, not just black folks who are struggling — the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender person, and yes, the middle-aged white guy who you may think has all the advantages, but over the last several decades has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change, and feels powerless to stop it.”

[Three]. “You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. . . .Not just awareness, but action.  Not just hashtags, but votes.”

“[C]hange requires more than righteous anger.  It requires a program, and it requires organizing.  . . . I’m so proud of the new guard of black civil rights leaders who understand this.  It’s thanks in large part to the activism of young people like many of you, from Black Twitter to Black Lives Matter, that America’s eyes have been opened — white, black, Democrat, Republican — to the real problems, for example, in our criminal justice system.”

“But to bring about structural change, lasting change, awareness is not enough.  It requires changes in law, changes in custom. . . . Passion is vital, but you’ve got to have a strategy.”

“And your plan better include voting — not just some of the time, but all the time.  It is absolutely true that 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, there are still too many barriers in this country to vote.  There are too many people trying to erect new barriers to voting.  This is the only advanced democracy on Earth that goes out of its way to make it difficult for people to vote.  And there’s a reason for that.  There’s a legacy to that.”

“Even if we dismantled every barrier to voting, that alone would not change the fact that America has some of the lowest voting rates in the free world. . . . [J]ust vote.  It’s math.  If you have more votes than the other guy, you get to do what you want. It’s not that complicated.”

“And you don’t have excuses.   You don’t have to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap to register to vote.  You don’t have to risk your life to cast a ballot.  Other people already did that for you. Your grandparents, your great grandparents might be here today if they were working on it.  What’s your excuse?  When we don’t vote, we give away our power, disenfranchise ourselves — right when we need to use the power that we have; right when we need your power to stop others from taking away the vote and rights of those more vulnerable than you are — the elderly and the poor, the formerly incarcerated trying to earn their second chance.”

“So you got to vote all the time, not just when it’s cool, not just when it’s time to elect a President, not just when you’re inspired.  It’s your duty. . . .   That’s how we change our politics — by electing people at every level who are representative of and accountable to us.  It is not that complicated.  Don’t make it complicated.”

And finally, change requires more than just speaking out — it requires listening, as well.  In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise.”

“[Y]ou need allies in a democracy.  That’s just the way it is.  It can be frustrating and it can be slow.  But history teaches us that the alternative to democracy is always worse.  That’s not just true in this country. . . . Go to any country where the give and take of democracy has been repealed by one-party rule, and I will show you a country that does not work.”

“And democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right.  This is hard to explain sometimes.  You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you.  If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want.  And if you don’t get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged.  And that will lead to more cynicism, and less participation, and a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair.  And that’s never been the source of our progress.  That’s how we cheat ourselves of progress.”

“But . . . [those who participated in the political process] made things better.  And you know what, I will take better every time.  I always tell my staff — better is good, because you consolidate your gains and then you move on to the next fight from a stronger position.”

“Another Howard alum, Zora Neale Hurston, once said: ‘Nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person.’  Think about that.  That’s why our democracy gives us a process designed for us to settle our disputes with argument and ideas and votes instead of violence and simple majority rule.”

“Engage.  If the other side has a point, learn from them.  If they’re wrong, rebut them.  Teach them.  Beat them on the battlefield of ideas.  And you might as well start practicing now, because one thing I can guarantee you — you will have to deal with ignorance, hatred, racism, foolishness, trifling folks. I promise you, you will have to deal with all that at every stage of your life.  That may not seem fair, but life has never been completely fair.  Nobody promised you a crystal stair.  And if you want to make life fair, then you’ve got to start with the world as it is.”

“James Baldwin once wrote, ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’”

“Graduates, each of us is only here because someone else faced down challenges for us.  We are only who we are because someone else struggled and sacrificed for us. . . . [T]hat is the story of America.  A story whispered by slaves in the cotton fields, the song of marchers in Selma, the dream of a King in the shadow of Lincoln.  The prayer of immigrants who set out for a new world.  The roar of women demanding the vote.  The rallying cry of workers who built America.  And the GIs who bled overseas for our freedom.”

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[1] Holston, Obama Embodies Blackness, Confidence, Hope at Howard University’s 148th Commencement, The Hilltop (May 7, 2016).

[2] White House, Remarks by the President at Howard University Commencement Ceremony (May 7, 2016).

 

 

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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