Near the end of President Barack Obama’s commencement address Sunday at Morehouse College in Atlanta, there was a clap of thunder just as he was telling the students to do the right thing. Clearly, it was time to end his speech when a steady drizzle fell on the graduates, and if there were tears from a president who had just endured one of the roughest weeks of his second term, they could not be discerned.
In fact, the only thing sunny on this rainy day was the president’s remarks, which never veered from the glowing optimism that his presidency has often symbolized for Black Americans. All of the GOP snarling, the cloud of Benghazi and the IRS, the unrelenting recalcitrance on gun control, climate change, immigration and sequestration, with its stranglehold on the economy, were pushed aside for the moment as the president zeroed in on young Black graduates and the Promised Land before them.
“Whatever success I have achieved, whatever positions of leadership I’ve held,” Obama said, “have depended less on Ivy League degrees or SAT scores or GPAs, and have instead been due to that sense of connection and empathy, the special obligation I felt, as a Black man like you, to help those who need it most–people who didn’t have the opportunities that I had–because there, but for the grace of God, go I. I might have been in their shoes. I might have been in prison. I might have been unemployed. I might not have been able to support a family. And that motivates me.”
In many respects, the address to the students sounded very familiar, touching on some of Obama’s tried and true aphorisms and advice, particularly when nearly berating young Black Americans. “We’ve got no time for excuses,” he asserted, “not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they have not. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; we know those are still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world, with millions of young people from China and India and Brazil–many of whom started with a whole lot less than all of you did–all of them entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned.”
His phrase “No time for excuses” is a favorite, and by now, especially for those Black Americans who remember his appearances before the NAACP and other Black organizations, it’s an expected admonition from the president.
Yes, there was a reference to Dr. Martin Luther King, which was no surprise because Morehouse is the alma mater of the great civil rights leader, only this time there was no allusion to him, but a direct, unambiguous reference.
“Dr. King was just 15 years old when he enrolled here at Morehouse,” the president stated. “He was an unknown, undersized, unassuming young freshman who lived at home with his parents. And I think it’s fair to say he wasn’t the coolest kid on campus–for the suits he wore, his classmates called him ‘Tweed.’ But his education at Morehouse helped to forge the intellect, the discipline, the compassion, the soul force that would transform America. It was here that he was introduced to the writings of Gandhi and Thoreau, and the theory of civil disobedience. It was here that professors encouraged him to look past the world as it was and fight for the world as it should be. And it was here, at Morehouse, as Dr. King later wrote, where ‘I realized that nobody–was afraid.’”
He also mentioned another Morehouse legend, Benjamin Mays, and W.E.B. Du Bois’ “talented tenth” was summoned to make a point about success and leadership.
While Obama always remembers to quote and cite the great men and women of the past, he rarely ever misses an occasion to share the spotlight with an ordinary someone in the audience. This time, it was a graduate named Leland Shelton.
“When Leland Shelton was 4 years old–where’s Leland? Stand up, Leland,” Obama commanded. “When Leland Shelton was 4 years old, Social Services took him away from his mama, put him in the care of his grandparents. By age 14, he was in the foster care system. Three years after that, Leland enrolled in Morehouse. And today he is graduating Phi Beta Kappa on his way to Harvard Law School. But he’s not stopping there.
“As a member of the National Foster Care Youth and Alumni Policy Council, he plans to use his law degree to make sure kids like him don’t fall through the cracks. And it won’t matter whether they’re Black kids or Brown kids or white kids or Native American kids, because he’ll understand what they’re going through. And he’ll be fighting for them. He’ll be in their corner. That’s leadership. That’s a Morehouse man right there.”