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Only Obama Can Go To Morehouse

obama-morehouse-whitehouse

In a powerful speech at Morehouse College, President Obama challenged the Class of 2013 to be better men.

After warming up a crowd that didn’t need it with some humor, the president turned serious. He reminded the graduates of their lineage:

Benjamin Mays, who served as the president of Morehouse for almost 30 years, understood that tradition better than anybody.  He said — and I quote — “It will not be sufficient for Morehouse College, for any college, for that matter, to produce clever graduates… but rather honest men, men who can be trusted in public and private life — men who are sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings, and the injustices of society and who are willing to accept responsibility for correcting [those] ills.”

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.

[...]

Dr. King was just 15 years old when he enrolled here at Morehouse.  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.”

And how far we’ve come:

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.

And how far we’ve still got to go:

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have work — because if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that too few of our brothers have the opportunities that you’ve had here at Morehouse.  In troubled neighborhoods all across this country — many of them heavily African American — too few of our citizens have role models to guide them.  Communities just a couple miles from my house in Chicago, communities just a couple miles from here — they’re places where jobs are still too scarce and wages are still too low; where schools are underfunded and violence is pervasive; where too many of our men spend their youth not behind a desk in a classroom, but hanging out on the streets or brooding behind a jail cell.

He then challenged the graduates:

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.”

I know that some of you came to Morehouse from communities where life was about keeping your head down and looking out for yourself.  Maybe you feel like you escaped, and now you can take your degree and get that fancy job and the nice house and the nice car — and never look back.  And don’t get me wrong — with all those student loans you’ve had to take out, I know you’ve got to earn some money.   With doors open to you that your parents and grandparents could not even imagine, no one expects you to take a vow of poverty.  But I will say it betrays a poverty of ambition if all you think about is what goods you can buy instead of what good you can do.

So, yes, go get that law degree.  But if you do, ask yourself if the only option is to defend the rich and the powerful, or if you can also find some time to defend the powerless.  Sure, go get your MBA, or start that business.  We need black businesses out there.  But ask yourselves 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 just on making money — rather, they had a vision of how their product or service would change things, and the money followed.

Some of you may be headed to medical school to become doctors.  But make sure you heal folks in underserved communities who really need it, too.  For generations, certain groups in this country — especially African Americans — have been desperate in need of access to quality, affordable health care.  And as a society, we’re finally beginning to change that.  Those of you who are under the age of 26 already have the option to stay on your parent’s health care plan.  But all of you are heading into an economy where many young people expect not only to have multiple jobs, but multiple careers.

He went further, into territory none of his predecessors could have trod comfortably:

Just as Morehouse has taught you to expect more of yourselves, inspire those who look up to you to expect more of themselves.  We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices.  And 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.  I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing.  But one of the things that all of you have learned over the last four years is there’s no longer any room for excuses.

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.

He got personal:

Keep setting an example for what it means to be a man. Be the best husband to your wife, or you’re your boyfriend, or your partner.  Be the best father you can be to your children.  Because nothing is more important.

I was raised by a heroic single mom, wonderful grandparents — made incredible sacrifices for me.  And I know there are moms and grandparents here today who did the same thing for all of you.  But I sure wish I had had a father who was not only present, but involved.  Didn’t know my dad.  And so my whole life, I’ve tried to be for Michelle and my girls what my father was not for my mother and me.  I want to break that cycle where a father is not at home — where a father is not helping to raise that son or daughter.  I want to be a better father, a better husband, a better man.

It’s hard work that demands your constant attention and frequent sacrifice.  And I promise you, Michelle will tell you I’m not perfect.  She’s got a long list of my imperfections.   Even now, I’m still practicing, I’m still learning, still getting corrected in terms of how to be a fine husband and a good father.  But I will tell you this:  Everything else is unfulfilled if we fail at family, if we fail at that responsibility.

I know that when I am on my deathbed someday, I will not be thinking about any particular legislation I passed; I will not be thinking about a policy I promoted; I will not be thinking about the speech I gave, I will not be thinking the Nobel Prize I received.  I will be thinking about that walk I took with my daughters.  I’ll be thinking about a lazy afternoon with my wife. I’ll be thinking about sitting around the dinner table and seeing them happy and healthy and knowing that they were loved.  And I’ll be thinking about whether I did right by all of them.

So be a good role model, set a good example for that young brother coming up.  If you know somebody who’s not on point, go back and bring that brother along — those who’ve been left behind, who haven’t had the same opportunities we have — they need to hear from you.  You’ve got to be engaged on the barbershops, on the basketball court, at church, spend time and energy and presence to give people opportunities and a chance.  Pull them up, expose them, support their dreams.  Don’t put them down.

And this:

As Morehouse Men, many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider; know what it’s like to be marginalized; know what it’s like to feel the sting of discrimination.  And that’s an experience that a lot of Americans share.  Hispanic Americans know that feeling when somebody asks them where they come from or tell them to go back.  Gay and lesbian Americans feel it when a stranger passes judgment on their parenting skills or the love that 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 knows what it’s like to be on the outside looking in.

So your experiences give you special insight that today’s leaders need.  If you tap into that experience, it should endow you with empathy — the understanding of what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, to know what it’s like when you’re not born on 3rd base, thinking you hit a triple.  It should give you the ability to connect.  It should give you a sense of compassion and what it means to overcome barriers.

Finally:

That’s what we’ve come to expect from you, Morehouse — a legacy of leaders — not just in our black community, but for the entire American community.  To recognize the burdens you carry with you, but to resist the temptation to use them as excuses.  To transform the way we think about manhood, and set higher standards for ourselves and for others.  To be successful, but also to understand that each of us has responsibilities not just to ourselves, but to one another and to future generations.  Men who refuse to be afraid.  Men who refuse to be afraid.

Morehouse isn’t an ordinary college; it’s one with a mission. So these men have heard these ideas many times over the last four years. I suspect they’ll be more meaningful coming from the first black president. And, frankly, while they’ve been called “Morehouse men” for the last four years, most of them are just now coming into manhood.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. DC Loser says:

    I’m sure the GOP is looking for all those Obama ‘mistakes’ as we speak to add to the impeachment papers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  2. Tony W says:

    We have an amazing man serving as president of our country. Thanks for sharing this.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 21 Thumb down 1

  3. bill says:

    ironic that an all male/black college still exists in this country, so much for desegregation efforts.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 40

  4. Mr. Prosser says:

    “But I will say it betrays a poverty of ambition if all you think about is what goods you can buy instead of what good you can do.” Amen.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  5. Jenos Idanian says:

    Obama’s always been good at speeches and lofty rhetoric. Living up to them? That’s a whole ‘nother story.

    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.

    In the IRS mess, we have offiicals who lied to Congress and covered it up until well after the election. Obama’s response: a stirring speech of outrage and condemnation. But actions? Well, the woman who oversaw the office in question collected six figures in bonuses and was appointed to head up the IRS’ ObamaCare enforcement division. The outgoing temporary head of the IRS was asked to resign a couple of weeks early. Obama’s counsel was informed of the mess back in April, but Obama says he didn’t hear about it until the news reports came out in May. So did the counsel continue the coverup, or is Obama lying?

    If Obama were to dump most of his appointees and replace them with fresh-faced Morehouse graduates, he’d probably be better served. I know we would.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 31

  6. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @bill: Morehouse is a Historically Black College. It admits men of all races and ethnicities.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 28 Thumb down 1

  7. John Peabody says:

    This is the best I’ve heard from the President in quite some time. Perhaps because it it speaks to a longer-term view than politics of the moment.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  8. Woody Boyd says:

    Jenos…the face of today’s Republicanist party.
    Which is all you need to know about today’s Republicanist party.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 1

  9. Woody Boyd says:

    Kinda puts the lie to Republicanists and minority outreach…eh?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  10. steve says:

    “In the IRS mess, we have offiicals who lied to Congress and covered it up until well after the election. ”

    Actually, Congress knew about the investigation. They even claimed that they were the ones who requested it.

    http://maddowblog.msnbc.com/_news/2013/05/20/18374386-the-who-knew-what-when-game-and-the-irs-controversy

    Steve

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1

  11. Septimius says:

    Good speech. Kind of sad that there are parts that only Obama could deliver. I wonder if we’ll ever get to the point where a white president could say some of the things Obama said and not immediately be branded racist.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  12. Woody Boyd says:

    @ bill,

    “…ironic that an all male/black college still exists in this country, so much for desegregation efforts…”

    Actually it says more about the power that still resides in bigots like you, than it does about desegregation.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 2

  13. Stonetools says:

    Another great Obama speech. Proud that he is President.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  14. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Septimius: The only reason this particular President is able to say much of what he said is because he also said this:

    Just as Morehouse has taught you to expect more of yourselves, inspire those who look up to you to expect more of themselves. We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. And 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. I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing. But one of the things that all of you have learned over the last four years is there’s no longer any room for excuses.

    Before you tell a group of people about their community’s failings, you need to be able to demonstrate that you have been where they are. There are very few white folks in positions of authority and power who didn’t start on third base, and fewer still who will acknowledge that privilege had a role in their success.

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  15. Woody Boyd says:

    “…and fewer still who will acknowledge that privilege had a role in their success…”

    This…10 times over.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 21 Thumb down 1

  16. gVOR08 says:

    @Woody Boyd: Yes. At some point they face a choice. Do they attribute their success at least partially to luck and to society as a whole; or do they attribute it to their own innate superiority? Almost universally they opt for the latter. I expect the Koch Bros feel contempt for anyone who didn’t have the guts, the drive, and the talent to inherit an oil company.

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  17. michael reynolds says:

    Americans generally have a very hard time admitting to an element of luck in anything. It’s very important to the amour propre of successful people, in particular, to admit that there isn’t much of a connection between virtue and success. I’ve always said my success comes from luck – luck in the DNA shuffle, luck in meeting the right woman at the right time — and I’ve had people argue vociferously, insisting that I must somehow have succeeded solely through hard work.

    It’s hard to get past your childhood brainwashing, especially when succumbing to it makes you feel ever so special.

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  18. Caj says:

    President Obama understands fully the trials and tribulations of being a black man in America. He has overcome great odds coming from a home with no father and a hard working single mother. All those graduates can aspire to follow his lead if that’s what they wish to aspire to. So very proud to have him as our first black president alongside his lovely family. If only others would see how far he has come and how hard he worked to get to this point instead of being jealous and so full of hate by many simply because he is black, the country would be in a better place. Racism sadly is alive and well and for many that is what drives the hate filled comments and nitpicking of every move he makes and everything he says. Great first black president. If Hillary runs she will be a great first woman president. As for a Republican woman to run against her they have absolutely nobody! In fact they have nobody period. None could hold a candle to Hillary should she choose to run.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  19. Pharoah Narim says:

    Sure the President gets alot of juice for being the first Black president. HOWEVER, it still deserves pointing out that he has an elite pedigree coming from 2 ivy league schools. Would Obama have been President had he graduated from Morehouse and John Marshall Law School? Absolutely not. In my opinion, most of the discrimination at the top levels has migrated from skin color to educational pedigree.

    MLK and others of his generation HAD to go to HBCUs because there were no other options available. Today, many of those kids would go to Harvard and other ivy league schools but lose valueable context of cutting their adult teeth as members of the Black community IN the Black community. That’s one reason I believe the President has trouble going beyond speeches into advocating policy that benefits people of color (the other being his upbringing in Hawaii effectively cut him off from exposure to the general black experience– until his time in Chicago).

    Its hard to take the President seriously when he gives a speech about Fatherhood on one hand and on the other hand does nothing about the “war or drugs” that created the male leadership vacuum in the community in first place. A community that economically got shut out by the “market efficiencies” of the last 30 years and a good number of men engaged in one of the only forms of commerce available to them. He also misunderstands the receptivity of the community when people that “made it” attempt to come back and teach others to “make it”. But then again, you’d either have to have experience in the community or talk to people to do in order to know that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 4

  20. James Joyner says:

    @Pharoah Narim: President is an elected office. Yes, it’s been helpful of late to have an Ivy League pedigree. But Ronald Reagan, Eureka College Class of 1932, served two terms. And the first black man to graduate Harvard, Richard Theodore Greener, did so in 1870. Edward Alexander Bouchet got his PhD in physics from Yale in 1876.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  21. Pharoah Narim says:

    @James Joyner: Understand, but this is a different day than it was back them. Power structures have to be more subtle in the way they keep out the people they don’t want in the game. Educational pedigree is now one of those ways. Also, I sincerely believe that the corporate powerbrokers in this country realize that, after Bush, continuously having a white face of power had become unsustainable. They need women and people of color as the face of power to keep the natives from getting restless. Is anyone going to argure that the President made a radical departure from the Bush policies or the policy trends of the past 30 years? Obama Care ought to be called Heritage Foundation Care. The Republican’s made it easy for him to avoid criticism by doubling down on their inner bigot. Obama won almost by default. The guy is a great moderate Republican President….and I don’t say that jokingly. He really is.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  22. wr says:

    @michael reynolds: As Woody Allen says in Stardust Memories, “If I’d been born in Germany 40 years ago, I’d be a lampshade today.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  23. Peacewood says:

    About that Morehouse speech.

    You’ve probably already read it, James, but Ta-Nehisi Coates over at the Atlantic has a very persuasive rebuttal.

    Read the whole thing, if you can.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  24. bill says:

    @Woody Boyd: how would you know if i was a bigot? (i’m not btw) it’s clearly bizarre that in this day and age we have segregated places of higher learning.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 6

  25. Dazedandconfused says:

    @Peacewood:

    That was interesting. Well written and worth thinking about, but the last comment in the comments is from a “Morehouse man”, and Ta-Nehisi closed the comments right there. Not out of cowardice, he invited him to correspond with him and he will almost certainly follow this up. I’d bet the farm on it.

    Cosby could have done it, and others, but nobody can “bring that” like a the nations first black POTUS can. I think it’s worth reflecting on the mark his “fly-over” state grandparents left on him, and the one made by Rev. Wright. Read about that church, it’s about “no excuses” top to bottom. Their rallying cry “Unashamedly Black and Unashamedly Christian” is from the 60’s. A statement that was not directed towards whites, but towards the Black Muslims, who under Elijah Mohammad, and he ruled the “roost” at that time, both wallowed in and exploited for his own benefit a sense of being victimized by whites.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  26. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @bill:

    it’s clearly bizarre that in this day and age we have segregated places of higher learning.

    It certainly would be if it were true. As it has been noted, however, it is not. HBCUs are called *Historically* Black Colleges and Universities for a reason: higher education in the United States was desegregated in 1965.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  27. Pharoah Narim says:

    @Peacewood: Captures my sentiments almost exactly. Its one thing to say those things if you are an entertainer or activist–someone who really has no direct influence on policy. But its an entirely different scenario when you continue to show up and say those things as the POTUS–someone with more influence than anyone in the nation on policy. The black community has several unique policy millstones hung around their necks. Lend a hand–not a motivational speech for a “change”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  28. Spartacus says:

    @Pharoah Narim:

    Lend a hand–not a motivational speech for a “change”.

    I think his inability to do this is tied to your earlier point that he was cut off from the general black experience. I’m sure he has an intellectual appreciation for policies that would be more effective at helping the less fortunate, but I don’t believe he’s fighting for those policies as hard as he would if he or his close loved ones would directly benefit from them.

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  29. G.A.Phillips says:

    Self absorbed, racist, race baiting, class warfare bullshit!And you fools eat it up.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 5

  30. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @G.A.Phillips: Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you Today’s GOP Base.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  31. Pharoah Narim says:

    @Gromitt Gun:

    Not to mention that fact that non-black students at HBCU quailify for….wait for it… MINORITY SCHOLARSHIPS! Bills just being the mean ole man that want’s everybody off his yard. Don’t mind him.

    @Sparticus: Excellent point. Here’s hoping he ‘evolves’ and leaves a legacy that colors in the social justice picture he draws himself in–

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  32. stonetools says:

    @Peacewood:

    About that Morehouse speech.

    You’ve probably already read it, James, but Ta-Nehisi Coates over at the Atlantic has a very persuasive rebuttal.

    Read the whole thing, if you can.

    Very interesting thread, which shows that black opinion on Obama is far from monolithic. My problem with TNC’s column is that he seemed to wanted Obama’s commencement speech to be a policy wonkfest on black America and not what commencement speeches generally are-an exhortation to the graduates to go forth and conquer. Still, his column made me think.

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  33. Deserttrek says:

    so barry actually might have said something that makes sense. from what I see, a person with zero qualifications who is only in office because of his skin color, tries to tell others what to do..

    just more well written rhetoric from the teleprompter in chief.

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  34. Rob in CT says:

    I liked both Obama’s speech and Ta-Nehisi’s rebuttal blog post.

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  35. al-Ameda says:

    @Deserttrek:

    just more well written rhetoric from the teleprompter in chief.

    You guys are obsessed with teleprompter technology – why?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0