Obama at Morehouse

I know that some conservatives were licking their lips and drooling at the prospect of Barack Obama speaking at Morehouse College. I know that there were several commentators who spent a ridiculous amount of time going on about how Barack Obama would not have delivered the same speech at Harvard as he did at Morehouse. I find it relatively ridiculous that one would expect the President of the United States to deliver the exact same speech at Harvard that he would at a historically black college like Morehouse. This was another great speech by Barack Obama. He was funny, he was serious, he was inspiring and he delivered a message to a group of black men that he couldn’t and shouldn’t deliver at Harvard, Yale or almost any other college in the United States. He tailored his speech to his audience. This is exactly what you’re supposed to do if you are a good public speaker.

Excerpts from President Barack Obama’s Morehouse commencement address:

It was that mission — not just to educate men, but to cultivate good men, strong men, upright men — that brought community leaders together just two years after the end of the Civil War. They assembled a list of 37 men, free blacks and freed slaves, who would make up the first prospective class of what later became Morehouse College. Most of those first students had a desire to become teachers and preachers — to better themselves so they could help others do the same.

A century and a half later, times have changed. But the “Morehouse Mystique” still endures. Some of you probably came here from communities where everybody looked like you. Others may have come here in search of a community. And I suspect that some of you probably felt a little bit of culture shock the first time you came together as a class in King’s Chapel. All of a sudden, you weren’t the only high school sports captain, you weren’t the only student council president. You were suddenly in a group of high achievers, and that meant you were expected to do something more.

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Now, think about it. For black men in the ’40s and the ’50s, the threat of violence, the constant humiliations, large and small, the uncertainty that you could support a family, the gnawing doubts born of the Jim Crow culture that told you every day that somehow you were inferior, the temptation to shrink from the world, to accept your place, to avoid risks, to be afraid — that temptation was necessarily strong.

And yet, here, under the tutelage of men like Dr. Mays, young Martin learned to be unafraid. And he, in turn, taught others to be unafraid. And over time, he taught a nation to be unafraid. And over the last 50 years, thanks to the moral force of Dr. King and a Moses generation that overcame their fear and their cynicism and their despair, barriers have come tumbling down, and new doors of opportunity have swung open, and laws and hearts and minds have been changed to the point where someone who looks just like you can somehow come to serve as President of these United States of America.

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But along with collective responsibilities, we have individual responsibilities. There are some things, as black men, we can only do for ourselves. There are some things, as Morehouse Men, that you are obliged to do for those still left behind. As Morehouse Men, you now wield something even more powerful than the diploma you’re about to collect — and that’s the power of your example.

So what I ask of you today is the same thing I ask of every graduating class I address: Use that power for something larger than yourself. Live up to President Mays’s challenge. Be “sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings, and the injustices of society.” And be “willing to accept responsibility for correcting (those) ills.”

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I understand 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.” Well, we’ve got no time for excuses. Not because the bitter legacy 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 hyperconnected, hypercompetitive 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.

Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and they overcame them. And if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too.

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ABOUT AUTHOR
Errington C. Thompson, MD

Dr. Thompson is a surgeon, scholar, full-time sports fan and part-time political activist. He is active in a number of community projects and initiatives. Through medicine, he strives to improve the physical health of all he treats.

Books

A Letter to America

The Thirteeneth Juror

Where is The Outrage Topics
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