President Obama on Sunday told the graduating class at Morehouse College, the country’s pre-eminent historically black college, there is “no time for excuses” for this generation of African-American men and that it was time for their generation to step up professionally and in their personal lives.
Obama’s visit comes nearly 50 years after King led the March on Washington, and 150 years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
The president connected his own path to the White House to the work of King and other African-American leaders of that generation. But Obama also conceded that at times as a young man he wrongly blamed his own failings “as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down.”
“We’ve got no time for excuses—not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven’t,” Obama told the graduating class and their families who sat through intermittent rain and thunder. “It’s just that in today’s hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world, with a billion young people from China and India and Brazil entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven’t earned.”
Obama spoke in very personal terms to the 500 young men as he urged them to not only become leaders in their community, but also good fathers and good husbands. Obama, who was raised by a single mother and grandparents, lamented the absence of his father in his life and urged the graduates to make family their top priority.
In his speech, Obama also connected the discrimination that African Americans have faced with some of the struggles of minority groups—including gays and lesbians fighting for the right to marriage, Hispanic Americans battling anti-immigrant bias and Muslims who face suspicion because of their faith.
Having a personal understanding of discrimination, Obama said, this generation of African Americans is uniquely equipped to be leaders for the country and world on these issues.
“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,” Obama said. “It should give you an ability to connect. It should give you a sense of what it means to overcome barriers.”
[Editor’s note: Here are some passages from the speech that USA Today did not include.]
I’m sure every one of you has a grandma, an uncle, or a parent who’s told you at some point in life that, as an African-American, you have to work twice as hard as anyone else if you want to get by.
As Morehouse Men, many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider; to be marginalized; to feel the sting of discrimination.
Whatever success I achieved, whatever positions of leadership I’ve held, have depended less on Ivy League degrees or SAT scores or GPAs, and have instead been due to that sense of empathy and connection – the special obligation I felt, as a black man like you, to help those who needed it most.
The brothers who have been left behind – who haven’t had the same opportunities we have – they need to hear from us. We’ve got to be in the barbershops with them, at church with them, spending time and energy and presence helping pull them up, exposing them to new opportunities, and supporting their dreams. We have to teach them what it means to be a man – to serve your city like Maynard Jackson; to shape the culture like Spike Lee.