It was arguably one of the most significant speeches of Obama’s presidency.
“For black men in the 1940s and 1950s, the threat of violence, the constant humiliations, large and small, the gnawing doubts born of a Jim Crow culture that told you every day you were somehow inferior, the temptation to shrink from the world, to accept your place, to avoid risks, to be afraid, was necessarily strong,” Obama told a cheering crowd of about 10,000 during his commencement address at Morehouse, an all-male historically black college.
“There are some things, as black men, we can only do for ourselves,” Obama said. “There are some things, as Morehouse Men, that you are obliged to do for those still left behind,” the president said. “As graduates – as Morehouse Men – you now wield something even more powerful than the diploma you are about to collect. And that’s the power of your example.”
Obama’s address to 500 black male graduates was his most direct public speech about the experiences of black men during his second term in the White House and one of his most straight-forward lectures about race since he took office.
“As Morehouse Men,” Obama said, “many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider; to be marginalized; to feel the sting of discrimination.”
But, the president said, “We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. Growing up, I made a few myself. And I have to confess, sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down.”
For some of Obama’s black supporters, it was the speech that many have been waiting for. Even some of the president’s most loyal followers – including some black congressional leaders — have been critical of Obama for not speaking out more about race and talking more about being a role model for black men as America’s first black president.
But on Sunday, it appeared that Obama was clearly in role-model mode for black men.
“If we’re being honest with ourselves, too few of our brothers and sisters have the opportunities you’ve had here at Morehouse,” Obama said. “In troubled neighborhoods all across the country – many of them heavily African American – too few of our citizens have role models to guide them.”
Obama also shared a bit more of his personal side, telling students that he’s made some ill-advised decisions early in life, but didn’t use it as a crutch to prevent him from moving forward.
“One of the things you’ve learned over the last four years is that there’s no longer any room for excuses,” Obama said. “I understand that there’s a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: “excuses are tools of the incompetent, used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.”
“We’ve got no time for excuses – not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven’t,” the president added. “Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; that’s still out there.”
But not everyone was accepting of Obama’s speech. Paul Butler, a law professor at Georgetown University, said Obama’s address didn’t go far enough and that Obama should have told Morehouse students that he’s “sorry” for not doing more for black men.
Still, Obama has been focusing on a myriad of challenges facing young black men as he begins his second term in the White House. Earlier this year, Obama traveled to the South Side of Chicago and spoke to 16 black male students who are growing up poor, troubled, and some without fathers in their lives.
The students, who attend Hyde Park Academy High School, are part of an anti-youth violence program called “Becoming A Man” (B.A.M.) that teaches at-risk students about violence prevention, accountability, self-determination, positive anger expression and respect for women.
“This is very personal for him because he didn’t have a father,” Jarrett said of the president during a one-hour session at the White House with six African American journalists in February. “He was raised by a single mom so he knows the challenges.”
“I think he takes his role as a mentor very seriously and he leads by example,” said Jarrett, perhaps the president’s most trusted White House confidant.
Meanwhile, at Morehouse College on Sunday, Obama urged students to be responsible black men.
“Keep setting an example for what it means to be a man,” the president 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.”
“I know that when I’m on my deathbed someday, I won’t be thinking about any particular legislation I passed, or policy I promoted; I won’t be thinking about the speech I gave, or the Nobel Prize I received,” Obama said. “I’ll be thinking about a walk I took with my daughters. A lazy afternoon with my wife. Whether I did right by all of them.”