President Obama Delivered a Commencement Speech to HBCU Grads


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On Saturday, more than 20,000 students from 78 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) participated in JPMorgan Chase’s “Show Me Your Walk HBCU Edition.” More than 20 black leaders across the fields of arts, government, music, sports, and more helped celebrated this year’s HBCU graduates celebrate their graduation. Kevin Hart hosted the event, and President Barack Obama gave the first of his two commencement speeches for today. He will deliver his second speech tonight at Graduate Together: High School Class of 2020.”

“Graduating from college is a big achievement under any circumstances, and so many of you overcame a lot to get here You navigated challenging classes and challenges outside the classroom. Many of you had to stretch to afford tuition, and some of you are the first in your families to reach this milestone. So even if half this semester was spent at ‘Zoom University,’ you’ve earned this moment. You should be very proud. Everybody who’s supported you along the way is proud of you: Parent, grandparents, professors, mentors, aunties, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins, second-cousins. Cousins who you aren’t even sure are cousins. Show them some gratitude today. Now look, I know this isn’t the commencement any of you really imagined. Because while our HBCUs are mostly known for an education rooted in academic rigor, community, higher purpose, they also know how to turn up. Nobody shines quite like a senior on the yard in springtime. ‘Springfest’ at schools like Howard and Moorehouse—that’s the time you get to strut your stuff a little bit. Rivals like Grambling and Southern, Jackson State, and Tennessee State might raise some eyebrows at sharing a graduation ceremony. But these aren’t normal times. You’re being asked to find a way in a world in the middle of a devastating pandemic and a terrible recession. The timing is not ideal.

“And let’s be honest: A disease like this just spotlights the inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this county. We see it in the disproportionate impact on COVID-19 in our communities, just as we see it when a black man goes for a jog and some folks feel like they can stop and question and shoot him if he doesn’t submit to their questioning. Injustice like this isn’t new. What is new is that so much of your generation has woken up to the fact that the status quo needs fixing. That the old ways of doing things don’t work and that it doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick. That our society and democracy only works when we think not just about ourselves but about each other. More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the fact that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing. A lot of them aren’t in even pretending to be in charge. If the world’s gonna get better, it’s gonna be up to you. With everything suddenly feeling like it’s up for grabs, this is your time to seize the initiative. Nobody can tell you anymore that you should be waiting your turn.

“Nobody can tell you anymore that this is always how it’s been done. More than ever, this is your moment, your generation’s world to shape. In taking on this responsibility, I hope you are bold. I hope you have a vision that isn’t clouded by cynicism or fear. As young African Americans, you’ve been exposed earlier than some to the world as it is. But as young HBCU grads, your education has also shown you the world has it ought to be. Many of your could have chosen any school in the country, specifically because it would help you sow seeds of change. You chose to follow in the fearless footsteps of people who shook the system to its core…I’m here to tell you you made a great choice. Whether you realize it or not, you’ve got more road maps, more role models, more resources than the Civil Rights generation did. You’ve got more tools and talents than my generation did. No generation has been better positioned to be warriors for justice and remake the world.”

“”You’re the folks we’ve been waiting for to come along…You’ve earned your degree. It’s now up to you to use it,” he said as he finished.

Watch the full speech, at the end of the livestream, below.

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The event kicked off with a rap from Rapsody, who lifted up graduating seniors with a song she wrote for them. Throughout, the notable participants introduced students who went above and beyond in their college careers. We’re talking “Forbes 30 under 30 scholars,” people who were the president of pretty much every organization at their universities, and those who would likely be singled out in front of all their friends and family at a normal graduation. Presidents from the HBCUs also showed up via video to express their congratulations and send their best wishes while recognizing the huge challenge of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Know that you don’t have to turn on the TV to see black excellence. Look on the mirror, and it is you,” Erica Young, a graduate from Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston, said.

Sen. Kamala Harris, a graduate of Howard University, shared that her HBCU “gave [her] lifelong friends…The gift of a Howard University education enhanced my life and prepared me for the life ahead.” She added that Toni Morrison, Katherine Johnson, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were all among HBCU graduates. “Your country needs your talent, needs your drive, and needs your determination. I want you to remember, please, that you are never alone and that your HBCU family will always be with you.”

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