Morehouse College in Atlanta is an all-male, historically black college that can trace its founding back to 1867, a time when America was trying to put itself back together after racists and racism had torn it apart.
You may have missed it, since most journalists these days are focused on other things, but President Obama actually gave an important, and highly personal, speech on Sunday, a speech addressed to the 500 or so black men who graduated from Morehouse this year, the same college that sent Martin Luther King, Jr., into the world as an educated man with a mission to improve that world.
About Dr. King, the President said,
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.”
That special college, the President said, is where,
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.
While all that is true enough and powerful enough, it is the example of Dr. King’s willingness “to look past the world as it was and fight for the world as it should be” that has been the theme running through these types of speeches the President has given, when he is obviously speaking to black audiences. “There are some things, as black men, we can only do for ourselves,” Mr. Obama insisted.
Among those things are taking care of “those still left behind.” Quoting social activist and scholar and minister—and former president of Morehouse College—Dr. Benjamin Mays, President Obama said,
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.”
The President told these graduates that planning a future that involves making money is okay, that “no one expects you to take a vow of poverty.” But, he added,
it betrays a poverty of ambition if all you think about is what goods you can buy instead of what good you can do.
That line, that sentiment, that call to contribute to the well-being of America, is, of course, not just something that only black men graduating from a prestigious liberal arts college in Atlanta need to hear. All of us need to hear it. However, we must not kid ourselves. These particular black men, hearing such a call from President Obama, hear something a little different from what the rest of us might hear.
These men know the poverty around them in black communities. They know the crime that infects places where young men, men not as fortunate as Morehouse graduates, actually live and die. And they have heard the criticism from white conservatives and the alibis from white liberals, the condemnations and the rationalizations from both sides, as they try to explain what is wrong with those communities and how to fix it.
Not often, though, have they heard words like the following, coming as they did from the most powerful man in the world, a man with the credentials, both genetic and experiential, that no other president has ever had:
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.
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 hyper-connected hyper-competitive 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.
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.
It just wouldn’t do, given our history, for a white man to lecture black men, black men who had just earned college degrees, in such a way. It wouldn’t do. Nor would it do for a white man, even the President of the United States, to related to black men in this way:
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.
And that’s the point here, isn’t it? Why should it be, here in 21st century America, that such a sentiment is still alive among black folks? Why should black men, or women, still be told to “work twice as hard as anyone else if you want to get by”? Because, as sad as it is to admit, it still rings true. And as sad as it is to say it, part of the reason is related to the the disorganization and dysfunction of black families in America:
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. 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.
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…
He insisted that, “as you do these things, do them not just for yourself,” or for only “the African American community,” because,
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.
The world needs them, the President declared, because,
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.
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.
Yes, I know there was criticism of President Obama’s remarks. And I’m sure there will be more. But if he can’t say these things to newly-educated black men, if he can’t challenge an elite group of black graduates to do more for their communities and country than just “get that fancy job and the nice house and the nice car — and never look back,” or if he can’t tell them to “be a good role model, set a good example for that young brother coming up,” then who can?