On May. 7, President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to speak at Howard University’s commencement convocation since President Lyndon B. Johnson over 50 years ago. LBJ’s speech, at the now culturally diverse university, in 1965, sparked controversy as he highlighted poverty in the Black community, inequality and the right to vote. Journalists have raved about LBJ, but like many of President Obama‘s speeches, it was nothing less than inspirational.
As the clouds started to cover the sky, the POTUS stood at the podium to brighten and enlighten the minds of the crowd. He started by reminiscing on how America had improved since his 1983 college graduation. “Let me begin with what may sound like a controversial statement — that is this, America is a better place today, then it was when I graduated from college.” In Obama fashion, he chuckled while saying, “it also happens to be better off since I took office., but that’s a different discussion, for another speech.”
The POTUS expressed the inequality that still plagues our country today. “Racism still exists, inequality persists … I wanted to start by opening your eyes to the moment you are in … I tell you all of this because it’s important to know progress. Because to deny how far we’ve come would do a disservice to the cause of justice.” and “I tell you this, not to lull you into complacency, but to spur you into action, because there is still so much work to do.”
Obama spoke about inequality in the workplace, stating, “We’ve still got a big racial gap in economic opportunity. The overall unemployment rate is almost 5 percent but, the Black unemployment rate is almost 9 [percent].” President Obama reminded people that “Harriet Tubman might be going on the 20 [dollar bill], but we’ve still got a gender gap when a Black woman working full time still earns just 66 percent of what a White man gets paid.”
As his speech continued, the president challenged the class of 2016 and gave them suggestions on how to fulfill their destiny and shape the collective future:
1: “Be confident in your heritage. Be confident in your Blackness.”
2: “Even as we each embrace our own beautiful, unique and valid versions of our blackness, remember the tide that does binds 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 cant meet the world with a sense of entitlement.”
3: “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. You see, change requires more than just righteous anger. It requires a program and it requires and organizer.”
4: “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.”
Touching on the injustice that Blacks in America have been witnessing for years, Obama asked some very simple, yet, powerful questions to bring about change. “If you care about mass incarceration, let me ask you, how are you pressuring members in Congress to pass the criminal justice reform bill now pending before them? If you care about better policing, do you know who your district attorney is? Do you know who your state’s attorney general is? Do you know the difference? Do you know who appoints the police chief and who writes the police training manual? Find out who they are. what their responsibilities are.”
The influential speech encouraged not just the 2016 graduates, it lit a fire inside the crowd, which was evident as they cheered and shouted Obama’s name as he exited the stage. There were smiles on the faces of legendary actress Cicely Tyson; author and professor Dr. Michael Eric Dyson; Council-member Vincent Orange; and Congressman Elijah E. Cummings as well as a standing ovation as they witnessed one of the last commencement speeches by Obama as the leader of the free world. He will speak at Rutgers University on May. 15 and in closing, his last speech will be at the U.S. Air Force Academy, June 2.
Check out exclusive images below from Howard University’s commencement: