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, the country’s first African-American president, chose a particularly poignant moment to deliver the commencement address at the Atlanta college that boasts civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., filmmaker Spike Lee and Atlanta’s first African-American mayor, Maynard Jackson, among its alumni.
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 â€” 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.
Obama told the Morehouse men they are also obliged to set an example for other black men.
“Keep setting an example for what it means to be a man,” Obama said. “Be the best husband to your wife, or boyfriend to your partner, or father to your children that you can be. Because nothing is more important.”
In the weeks ahead of the commencement, a spat between the college administration and alumni over the role a Philadelphia pastor would play during graduation weekend threatened to cast a shadow on the president’s historic visit.
Morehouse President John Silvanus Wilson and a group of alumni sparred after Wilson invited alumnus Kevin Johnson to deliver the baccalaureate sermon only to later to diminish his role.
Wilson, a former adviser in the Obama administration, told Johnson he was changing the ceremony to a multispeaker format after Johnson wrote an op-ed in a Philadelphia newspaper criticizing the president for appointing too few African Americans to senior Cabinet positions.
A dozen prominent alumni spoke out against the decision, and Johnson initially refused to take part in the baccalaureate under a multispeaker format.
But last week, Wilson and Johnson came to a resolution and Johnson delivered the baccalaureate sermon, while two recent alumni were given lesser speaking roles.
The college was also shaken by news earlier this month that four Morehouse students were charged with sexual assault in which two women from nearby Spelman College were the alleged victims.
In his speech, Obama also connected the discrimination that African Americans have faced with some of the struggles of minority groups â€” 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 â€” 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.”