President Obama Delivers Morehouse College Commencement Address

President Obama Delivers Morehouse College Commencement Address


The President:
Hello, Morehouse! (applause) Thank you, everybody. Please be seated. Audience Member:
I love you! The President:
I love you back. (laughter) That is why I am here. I have to say that it is one of
the great honors of my life to be able to address this
gathering here today. I want to thank Dr. Wilson for
his outstanding leadership, and the Board of Trustees. We have Congressman Cedric
Richmond and Sanford Bishop — both proud alumni
of this school, as well as Congressman
Hank Johnson. And one of my dear friends and
a great inspiration to us all — the great John Lewis is here. (applause) We have your outstanding Mayor,
Mr. Kasim Reed, in the house. (applause) To all the members of
the Morehouse family. And most of all, congratulations
to this distinguished group of Morehouse Men —
the Class of 2013. (applause) I have to say that it’s a
little hard to follow — not Dr. Wilson, but a skinny
guy with a funny name. (laughter) Betsegaw Tadele — he’s
going to be doing something. I also have to say that you
all are going to get wet. (laughter) And I’d be out there
with you if I could. (laughter) But Secret Service gets nervous. (laughter) So I’m going to have
to stay here, dry. (laughter) But know that I’m there
with you in spirit. (laughter) Some of you are graduating
summa cum laude. (applause) Some of you are graduating
magna cum laude. (applause) I know some of you are just
graduating, “thank you, Lordy.” (laughter and applause) That’s appropriate
because it’s a Sunday. (laughter) I see some moms and
grandmas here, aunts, in their Sunday best — although
they are upset about their hair getting messed up. (laughter) Michelle would not be
sitting in the rain. (laughter) She has taught me about hair. (laughter) I want to congratulate
all of you — the parents, the grandparents, the
brothers and sisters, the family and friends who
supported these young men in so many ways. This is your day, as well. Just think about it —
your sons, your brothers, your nephews — they spent the
last four years far from home and close to Spelman, and yet
they are still here today. (applause) So you’ve done something right. Graduates, give a big round
of applause to your family for everything that
they’ve done for you. (applause) I know that some of you had to
wait in long lines to get into today’s ceremony. And I would apologize, but
it did not have anything to do with security. Those graduates just wanted
you to know what it’s like to register for classes here. (laughter and applause) And this time of year brings
a different kind of stress — every senior stopping by Gloster
Hall over the past week making sure your name was actually
on the list of students who met all the graduation
requirements. (applause) If it wasn’t on the list,
you had to figure out why. Was it that library book you
lent to that trifling roommate who didn’t return it? (laughter) Was it Dr. Johnson’s
policy class? (applause) Did you get enough
Crown Forum credits? (applause) On that last point, I’m going to
exercise my power as President to declare this speech
sufficient Crown Forum credits for any otherwise
eligible student to graduate. That is my graduation
gift to you. (applause) You have a special dispensation. Now, graduates, I am humbled to
stand here with all of you as an honorary Morehouse Man. (applause) I finally made it. (laughter) And as I do, I’m mindful of an
old saying: “You can always tell a Morehouse Man — (applause) — but you can’t tell him much.” (applause) And that makes my task a little
more difficult, I suppose. But I think it also reflects
the sense of pride that’s always been part of this
school’s tradition. Benjamin Mays, who served as
the president of Morehouse for almost 30 years, understood that
tradition better than anybody. He said — and I quote — “It
will not be sufficient for Morehouse College, for any
college, for that matter, to produce clever graduates… but rather honest men, men who
can be trusted in public and private life — men who are
sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings, and the
injustices of society and who are willing to
accept responsibility for correcting (those) ills.” It was that mission —
not just to educate men, but to cultivate
good men, strong men, upright men — that brought
community leaders together just two years after the
end of the Civil War. They assembled a list of 37 men,
free blacks and freed slaves, who would make up the first
prospective class of what later became Morehouse College. Most of those first students had
a desire to become teachers and preachers — to better
themselves so they could help others do the same. A century and a half
later, times have changed. But the “Morehouse
Mystique” still endures. Some of you probably came here
from communities where everybody looked like you. Others may have come here
in search of a community. And I suspect that some of you
probably felt a little bit of culture shock the first time
you came together as a class in King’s Chapel. All of a sudden, you weren’t the
only high school sports captain, you weren’t the only
student council president. You were suddenly in a
group of high achievers, and that meant you were
expected to do something more. That’s the unique sense of
purpose that this place has always infused — the conviction
that this is a training ground not only for individual success,
but for leadership that can change the world. Dr. King was just
15 years old when he enrolled here at Morehouse. He was an unknown, undersized,
unassuming young freshman who lived at home with his parents. And I think it’s fair to say he
wasn’t the coolest kid on campus — for the suits he wore, his
classmates called him “Tweed.” But his education at Morehouse
helped to forge the intellect, the discipline, the compassion,
the soul force that would transform America. It was here that he was
introduced to the writings of Gandhi and Thoreau, and the
theory of civil disobedience. It was here that professors
encouraged him to look past the world as it was and fight
for the world as it should be. And it was here, at Morehouse,
as Dr. King later wrote, where “I realized that
nobody…was afraid.” Not even of some bad weather. I added on that part. (laughter) I know it’s wet out there. But Dr. Wilson told me you all
had a choice and decided to do it out here anyway. (applause) That’s a Morehouse Man talking. Now, think about it. For black men in the
’40s and the ’50s, the threat of violence,
the constant humiliations, large and small, the uncertainty
that you could support a family, the gnawing doubts born of the
Jim Crow culture that told you every day that somehow
you were inferior, the temptation to shrink from
the world, to accept your place, to avoid risks, to be
afraid — that temptation was necessarily strong. And yet, here, under the
tutelage of men like Dr. Mays, young Martin learned
to be unafraid. And he, in turn, taught
others to be unafraid. And over time, he taught
a nation to be unafraid. And over the last 50 years,
thanks to the moral force of Dr. King and a Moses generation
that overcame their fear and their cynicism
and their despair, barriers have come
tumbling down, and new doors of
opportunity have swung open, and laws and hearts and minds
have been changed to the point where someone who looks just
like you can somehow come to serve as President of these
United States of America. (applause) So the history we share
should give you hope. The future we share
should give you hope. You’re graduating into
an improving job market. You’re living in a time when
advances in technology and communication put the
world at your fingertips. Your generation is uniquely
poised for success unlike any generation of African
Americans that came before it. But that doesn’t mean we don’t
have work — because if we’re honest with ourselves, we know
that too few of our brothers have the opportunities that
you’ve had here at Morehouse. In troubled neighborhoods all
across this country — many of them heavily African American
— too few of our citizens have role models to guide them. Communities just a couple
miles from my house in Chicago, communities just a couple miles
from here — they’re places where jobs are still too scarce
and wages are still too low; where schools are underfunded
and violence is pervasive; where too many of our men spend
their youth not behind a desk in a classroom, but hanging out on
the streets or brooding behind a jail cell. My job, as President, is to
advocate for policies that generate more opportunity for
everybody — policies that strengthen the middle class and
give more people the chance to climb their way into
the middle class. Policies that create more
good jobs and reduce poverty, and educate more children, and
give more families the security of health care, and protect more
of our children from the horrors of gun violence. That’s my job. Those are matters
of public policy, and it is important
for all of us — black, white and brown — to advocate
for an America where everybody has got a fair shot in life. Not just some. Not just a few. (applause) But along with collective
responsibilities, we have individual
responsibilities. There are some
things, as black men, we can only do for ourselves. There are some things,
as Morehouse Men, that you are obliged to do
for those still left behind. As Morehouse Men, you now wield
something even more powerful than the diploma you’re about to
collect — and that’s the power of your example. So what I ask of you today is
the same thing I ask of every graduating class I address:
Use that power for something larger than yourself. Live up to President
Mays’s challenge. Be “sensitive to the
wrongs, the sufferings, and the injustices of society.” And be “willing to
accept responsibility for correcting (those) ills.” I know that some of you came
to Morehouse from communities where life was about keeping
your head down and looking out for yourself. Maybe you feel like you escaped,
and now you can take your degree and get that fancy job and the
nice house and the nice car — and never look back. And don’t get me wrong — with
all those student loans you’ve had to take out, I know
you’ve got to earn some money. With doors open to you that your
parents and grandparents could not even imagine, no one expects
you to take a vow of poverty. But I will say it betrays a
poverty of ambition if all you think about is what goods you
can buy instead of what good you can do. (applause) So, yes, go get that law degree. But if you do, ask yourself if
the only option is to defend the rich and the powerful, or
if you can also find some time to defend the powerless. Sure, go get your MBA,
or start that business. We need black
businesses out there. But ask yourselves what broader
purpose your business might serve, in putting
people back to work, or transforming a neighborhood. The most successful CEOs I know
didn’t start out intent just on making money — rather, they had
a vision of how their product or service would change things,
and the money followed. (applause) Some of you may be
headed to medical school to become doctors. But make sure you heal folks
in underserved communities who really need it, too. For generations, certain groups
in this country — especially African Americans — have been
desperate in need of access to quality, affordable health care. And as a society, we’re finally
beginning to change that. Those of you who are under
the age of 26 already have the option to stay on your
parent’s health care plan. But all of you are heading into
an economy where many young people expect not only
to have multiple jobs, but multiple careers. So starting October 1st, because
of the Affordable Care Act — otherwise known as Obamacare — (applause) — you’ll be able to
shop for a quality, affordable plan that’s yours and
travels with you — a plan that will insure not
only your health, but your dreams if you are
sick or get in an accident. But we’re going to need
some doctors to make sure it works, too. We’ve got to make sure everybody
has good health in this country. It’s not just good for you,
it’s good for this country. So you’re going to have to
spread the word to your fellow young people. Which brings me to a second
point: Just as Morehouse has taught you to expect
more of yourselves, inspire those who look up to you
to expect more of themselves. We know that too many young
men in our community continue to make bad choices. And I have to say, growing
up, I made quite a few myself. Sometimes I wrote off my own
failings as just another example of the world trying to
keep a black man down. I had a tendency sometimes to
make excuses for me not doing the right thing. But one of the things that all
of you have learned over the last four years is there’s no
longer any room for excuses. (applause) I understand there’s a common
fraternity creed here at Morehouse: “Excuses are tools
of the incompetent used to build bridges to nowhere and
monuments of nothingness.” Well, we’ve got no
time for excuses. Not because the bitter legacy
of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely;
they have not. Not because racism and
discrimination no longer exist; we know those are
still out there. It’s just that in
today’s hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world, with
millions of young people from China and India and Brazil —
many of whom started with a whole lot less than all of you
did — all of them entering the global workforce alongside you,
nobody is going to give you anything that you
have not earned. (applause) Nobody cares how tough
your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered
some discrimination. And moreover, you have to
remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in
comparison to the hardships previous generations endured
— and they overcame them. And if they overcame them,
you can overcome them, too. (applause) You now hail from a lineage and
legacy of immeasurably strong men — men who bore tremendous
burdens and still laid the stones for the path
on which we now walk. You wear the mantle of
Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, and Ralph
Bunche and Langston Hughes, and George Washington Carver
and Ralph Abernathy and Thurgood Marshall, and, yes,
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These men were many
things to many people. And they knew full well
the role that racism played in their lives. But when it came to their own
accomplishments and sense of purpose, they had
no time for excuses. Every one of you have a grandma
or an uncle or a parent who’s told you that at some point in
life, as an African American, you have to work twice as
hard as anyone else if you want to get by. I think President Mays put
it even better: He said, “Whatever you do, strive to do
it so well that no man living and no man dead, and no
man yet to be born can do it any better.” (applause) And I promise you, what was
needed in Dr. Mays’s time, that spirit of excellence,
and hard work, and dedication, and no excuses is needed
now more than ever. If you think you can just
get over in this economy just because you have
a Morehouse degree, you’re in for a rude awakening. But if you stay hungry,
if you keep hustling, if you keep on your grind and
get other folks to do the same — nobody can stop you. (applause) And when I talk about pursuing
excellence and setting an example, I’m not just talking
about in your professional life. One of today’s graduates,
Frederick Anderson — where’s Frederick? Frederick, right here. (applause) I know it’s raining, but I’m
going to tell about Frederick. Frederick started his
college career in Ohio, only to find out that his
high school sweetheart back in Georgia was pregnant. So he came back and enrolled in
Morehouse to be closer to her. Pretty soon, helping raise a
newborn and working night shifts became too much, so he started
taking business classes at a technical college instead —
doing everything from delivering newspapers to buffing hospital
floors to support his family. And then he enrolled at
Morehouse a second time. But even with a job, he
couldn’t keep up with the cost of tuition. So after getting his degree
from that technical school, this father of three decided
to come back to Morehouse for a third time. (applause) As Frederick says, “God
has a plan for my life, and He’s not done with me yet.” And today, Frederick is a
family man, and a working man, and a Morehouse Man. (applause) And that’s what I’m asking all
of you to do: Keep setting an example for what it
means to be a man. (applause) Be the best husband to your
wife, or you’re your boyfriend, or your partner. Be the best father you
can be to your children. Because nothing
is more important. I was raised by a
heroic single mom, wonderful grandparents — made
incredible sacrifices for me. And I know there are moms and
grandparents here today who did the same thing for all of you. But I sure wish I had had a
father who was not only present, but involved. Didn’t know my dad. And so my whole life, I’ve tried
to be for Michelle and my girls what my father was not
for my mother and me. I want to break that cycle
where a father is not at home — (applause) — where a father is not helping
to raise that son or daughter. I want to be a better father,
a better husband, a better man. It’s hard work that demands
your constant attention and frequent sacrifice. And I promise you, Michelle
will tell you I’m not perfect. She’s got a long list
of my imperfections. (laughter) Even now, I’m still
practicing, I’m still learning, still getting corrected in terms
of how to be a fine husband and a good father. But I will tell you this:
Everything else is unfulfilled if we fail at family, if we
fail at that responsibility. (applause) I know that when I am
on my deathbed someday, I will not be thinking about any
particular legislation I passed; I will not be thinking
about a policy I promoted; I will not be thinking
about the speech I gave, I will not be thinking the
Nobel Prize I received. I will be thinking about that
walk I took with my daughters. I’ll be thinking about a
lazy afternoon with my wife. I’ll be thinking about sitting
around the dinner table and seeing them happy and
healthy and knowing that they were loved. And I’ll be thinking about
whether I did right by all of them. So be a good role model, set
a good example for that young brother coming up. If you know somebody
who’s not on point, go back and bring that brother
along — those who’ve been left behind, who haven’t had the
same opportunities we have — they need to hear from you. You’ve got to be engaged
on the barbershops, on the basketball
court, at church, spend time and energy and
presence to give people opportunities and a chance. Pull them up, expose them,
support their dreams. Don’t put them down. We’ve got to teach them just
like what we have to learn, what it means to be a man
— to serve your city like Maynard Jackson; to shape
the culture like Spike Lee; to be like Chester Davenport,
one of the first people to integrate the University
of Georgia Law School. When he got there, nobody
would sit next to him in class. But Chester didn’t mind. Later on, he said, “It was
the thing for me to do. Someone needed to be the first.” And today, Chester is here
celebrating his 50th reunion. Where is Chester Davenport? He’s here. (applause) So if you’ve had
role models, fathers, brothers like that
— thank them today. And if you haven’t, commit
yourself to being that man to somebody else. And finally, as you
do these things, do them not just for yourself,
but don’t even do them just for the African American community. I want you to set
your sights higher. At the turn of the
last century, W.E.B. DuBois spoke about the “talented
tenth” — a class of highly educated, socially conscious
leaders in the black community. But it’s not just the
African American community that needs you. The country needs you. The world needs you. As Morehouse Men, many of you
know what it’s like to be an outsider; know what it’s
like to be marginalized; know what it’s like to feel
the sting of discrimination. And that’s an experience that
a lot of Americans share. Hispanic Americans know that
feeling when somebody asks them where they come from
or tell them to go back. Gay and lesbian Americans
feel it when a stranger passes judgment on their
parenting skills or the love that they share. Muslim Americans feel it when
they’re stared at with suspicion because of their faith. Any woman who knows the
injustice of earning less pay for doing the same work — she
knows what it’s like to be on the outside looking in. So your experiences give
you special insight that today’s leaders need. If you tap into that experience,
it should endow you with empathy — the understanding of what
it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to see
through their eyes, to know what it’s like when
you’re not born on 3rd base, thinking you hit a triple. It should give you the
ability to connect. It should give you a sense
of compassion and what it means to overcome barriers. And I will tell
you, Class of 2013, whatever success
I have achieved, whatever positions of leadership
I have held have depended less on Ivy League degrees
or SAT scores or GPAs, and have instead been due to
that sense of connection and empathy — the special
obligation I felt, as a black man like you, to
help those who need it most, people who didn’t have the
opportunities that I had — because there but
for the grace of God, go I — I might have
been in their shoes. I might have been in prison. I might have been unemployed. I might not have been
able to support a family. And that motivates me. (applause) So it’s up to you to widen your
circle of concern — to care about justice for everybody,
white, black and brown. Everybody. Not just in your own community,
but also across this country and around the world. To make sure
everyone has a voice, and everybody gets a seat at
the table; that everybody, no matter what you look
like or where you come from, what your last name is
— it doesn’t matter, everybody gets a chance to
walk through those doors of opportunity if they are
willing to work hard enough. When Leland Shelton was four
years old — where’s Leland? (applause) Stand up, Leland. When Leland Shelton
was four years old, social services took
him away from his mama, put him in the care
of his grandparents. By age 14, he was in
the foster care system. Three years after that,
Leland enrolled in Morehouse. And today he is graduating
Phi Beta Kappa on his way to Harvard Law School. (applause) But he’s not stopping there. As a member of the National
Foster Care Youth and Alumni Policy Council, he plans to use
his law degree to make sure kids like him don’t fall
through the cracks. And it won’t matter whether
they’re black kids or brown kids or white kids or
Native American kids, because he’ll understand
what they’re going through. And he’ll be fighting for them. He’ll be in their corner. That’s leadership. That’s a Morehouse
Man right there. (applause) That’s what we’ve come
to expect from you, Morehouse — a legacy of
leaders — not just in our black community, but for
the entire American community. To recognize the burdens
you carry with you, but to resist the temptation
to use them as excuses. To transform the way
we think about manhood, and set higher standards for
ourselves and for others. To be successful, but also to
understand that each of us has responsibilities not
just to ourselves, but to one another and
to future generations. Men who refuse to be afraid. Men who refuse to be afraid. Members of the Class of 2013,
you are heirs to a great legacy. You have within you that same
courage and that same strength, the same resolve as the
men who came before you. That’s what being a
Morehouse Man is all about. That’s what being an
American is all about. Success may not come
quickly or easily. But if you strive
to do what’s right, if you work harder
and dream bigger, if you set an example in your
own lives and do your part to help meet the challenges of our
time, then I’m confident that, together, we will continue
the never-ending task of perfecting our union. Congratulations, Class of 2013. God bless you. God bless Morehouse. And God bless the United
States of America. (applause)

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