On Sunday May 8, Barack Obama delivered a speech to graduates of Howard University in Washington, DC, a historically black university based just a few miles from the White House. Obama used the opportunity to remind the crowd how much the world has changed–not just since his term as US president, but through the 1980s, when he was a college student, and the 1960s, when the equal rights and social justice movements were born in the modern era.
If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be–what nationality, what gender, what race, whether you’d be rich or poor, gay or straight, what faith you’d be born into–you wouldn’t choose 100 years ago. You wouldn’t choose the fifties, or the sixties, or the seventies. You’d choose right now. If you had to choose a time to be, in the words of Lorraine Hansberry, “young, gifted, and black” in America, you would choose right now.
Obama also urged graduates to keep bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice, noting that, “we’ve got a justice gap when too many black boys and girls pass through a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails. This is one area where things have gotten worse. When I was in college, about half a million people in America were behind bars. Today, there are about 2.2 million. Black men are about six times likelier to be in prison right now than white men.”
Obama asked graduates to “be confident in your blackness.” He mentioned his recent visit with rapper Kendrick Lamar and his dinner with Queen Elizabeth in noting “there’s no one way to be black.”
He encouraged students to vote “all the time, not just when it’s cool”–seeking, perhaps, to ensure that the young minorities who helped him win two presidential elections stay engaged when he’s not on the ballot this coming November. He reminded the audience of the rigged tests once used against black voters, telling them, “You don’t have to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap to register to vote. You don’t have to risk your life to cast a ballot. Other people already did that for you.”
As his term winds to a close, many people watching the president wonder what shape his post-presidential life will take. Obama has mentioned writing more books, returning to teaching, and, of course, leading the effort to build his presidential library on Chicago’s South Side. His speech at Howard could be viewed as a signal that racial and social justice issues will be at the forefront of his domestic agenda. During the speech, he also noted the graduation and incarceration rates for black men remain relatively low, and high, respectively.
Perhaps the most telling part of his speech, regarding any post-presidential plans, is one that echoes the speeches he has given since he first started campaigning for the presidency more than eight years ago. As he told graduates:
Change isn’t something that happens every four years or eight years; change is not placing your faith in any particular politician and then just putting your feet up and saying, okay, go. Change is the effort of committed citizens who hitch their wagons to something bigger than themselves and fight for it every single day.
As Obama transitions from elected official to committed citizen, the words he used to inspire Howard University graduates to action surely will inform his own plans and aspirations. You can read a transcript of Obama’s speech here, or watch (or just listen to in a background tab) the whole thing on YouTube:
For the 2016 graduation season, Obama will also deliver commencement remarks at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado.