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Full text of speech: as delivered
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Students arriving for President Obama’s Morehouse commencement
ATLANTA — President Obama came to Morehouse College, the alma mater of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on Sunday to tell graduates, 50 years after Dr. King’s landmark “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, that “laws, hearts and minds have been changed to the point where someone who looks like you can serve as president of the United States.”
Wearing an academic robe in maroon and black, Mr. Obama paid tribute to Morehouse as the place where Dr. King first read the writings of Gandhi and Thoreau, and absorbed the theory of civil disobedience.
The president tied Dr. King’s journey to his own, speaking in forthright and strikingly personal terms about his struggles as a young man with an absent father, a “heroic single mother,” supportive grandparents and the psychological burdens of being black in America.
“We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices,” Mr. Obama said. “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.”
“But one of the things you’ve learned over the last four years is that there’s no longer any room for excuses,” the president told the 500 or so graduates, who greeted him enthusiastically.
“Along with collective responsibilities, we have individual responsibilities,” Mr. Obama added. “There are some things, as black men, we can only do for ourselves.”
Mr. Obama exhorted the graduates to extend a hand to other black men, saying that his success depended less on his Ivy Leagues credentials than on his sense of empathy and obligation he felt as a black man to help his brothers.
“But for the grace of God, I might be in their shoes,” the president said. “I might have been in prison.”
… arriving with College President John Wilson
…. with Valerie Jarrett
…. with College President John Wilson and Chairman of the Board of Trustees Robert Davidson
“What I ask of you today is the same thing I ask of every graduating class I address,” Obama told 500 graduates and an estimated 10,000 onlookers, most of them in ponchos, on the school’s stormy, rain-soaked campus. “Use that power for something larger than yourself.”
While the message may have been unremarkable, the occasion was historic: Obama became the first sitting president to address Morehouse, the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose spirit was evoked throughout the speech.
“Many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider, to be marginalized, to feel the sting of discrimination,” Obama said. “That’s an experience that so many other Americans share. Hispanic Americans know that feeling when someone asks where they come from or tells them to go back. Gay and lesbian Americans feel it when a stranger passes judgment on their parenting skills or the love 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 sure feels it.”
President Obama, in a soaring commencement address on work, sacrifice and opportunity, told graduates of Morehouse College today to seize the power of their example as black men graduating from college and use it to improve people’s lives.
Noting the Atlanta school’s mission to cultivate, not just educate, good men, Obama said graduates should not be so eager to join the chase for wealth and material things, but instead should remember where they came from and not “take your degree and get a fancy job and nice house and nice car and never look back.”
“So yes, go get that law degree. But if you do, ask yourself if the only option is to defend the rich and powerful, or if you can also find time to defend the powerless,” Obama declared. “Sure, go get your MBA, or start that business. We need black businesses out there. But ask yourself what broader purpose your business might serve, in putting people to work, or transforming a neighborhood.”
“The most successful CEOs I know didn’t start out intent on making money — rather, they had a vision of how their product or service would change things, and the money followed,” he said.
For those headed to medical school, Obama said “make sure you heal folks in underserved communities who really need it, too.” He asked those headed to law school to think about defending the poor.
President Obama receives an honorary degree:
Britney Ferguson arrived early to get a front row seat in the family and friends area. The 20-year-old from Hayward, Calif., came to see her brother, Ian Minerve Jr., graduate from Morehouse with his business degree. “It’s really, really amazing to be here. I’m so happy for my brother,” said the California State University East Bay student. “This inspires me to keep working hard in school so I can graduate and feel success.”
Ferguson’s father got to campus at 3:30 a.m. to save seats for the rest of the family. “Seeing Obama makes it worth it sitting here in the rain,” she said. Her cousin, Sally Seow, from Trinidad, is attending her first American graduation. “Having Obama here makes it that much more special,” she said. Sean K. Daughtry of Boston, a Morehouse graduate, was in Atlanta to celebrate his 20th class reunion. “It is a great honor to have our president here and an even greater honor that we are bestowing upon him an honorary degree,” he said. “So we will have a Morehouse man as president.”
A graduate listens to President Obama speak at Morehouse College