I was inspired when I read the text of President Obama's commencement speech at Howard University this past Saturday, May 7, 2016.
Some of you may not know that Howard was founded as an "Historically Black College" (HBCU) in 1866 by missionaries initially as a training facility for black preachers. The school was named after Civil war hero General Oliver Oliver Howard, a white man, who served as the Commissioner of the Freedman's Bureau. The bureau, was founded in i865 as the U.S. government agency to provide post-civil war economic relief, education and legal protection for the 4 million newly emancipated slaves.
Shortly after its founding the school's focus expanded to include liberal arts and medical training.
Other presidents of the United States have spoken at Howard including earlier commencements. There is something historically unique, however, that America's first African-American President spoke at a Howard University commencement at these equally unique historical cross roads of our 2106 Presidential and Congressional elections.
The content of what President Obama said, and the way in which he spoke it were engaging; at times, powerfully moving.
As an earlier, now elder, wordsmith, I was privileged to serve and assist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in connection with some of his speeches and strategic leadership decisions. He was the 20th century's greatest apostle for justice, racial and economic equality.
Consequently, I wish Pres. Obama had included, at the outset of his remarks this one seminal thought; expressed in these words: "I know and you should know that I am here as president of the United States because of the votes and work of your parents and grandparents to achieve civil rights and social justice for you and all America."
This would have not been a new thought for this president. On more than one occasion he has, publicly and privately, acknowledged this to persons like Congressman John Lewis, Rev. C.T. Vivian, Amelia Boynton (before her passing last year), a leader of the Voting Rights March across The Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, AL in 1965.
He also acknowledged to me during my visit with him in his Oval Office, in February 2015 that he knows that he is president because of the earlier work of Dr. King, and other civil rights icons, like Fannie Lou Hamer of Mississippi had done. He mentioned her voting rights leadership in his Howard University commencement address.
There are also other matters, however, that we should know and remember when we watch, listen to or read Pres. Obama's speech at Howard University this past Saturday, May, 7th, 2016
Among these are:
*"Nationwide, the black student graduation rate remains at a dismally low 42 percent. But the rate has improved by three percentage points over the past two years. More encouraging is the fact that over the past seven years the black student graduation rate has improved at almost all of the nation's highest-ranked universities".
*African-Americans With College Degrees Are Twice As Likely to Be Unemployed as Other Graduates
*A new study finds that 12.4 percent of black college graduates were unemployed. For all college graduates, the unemployment rate stood at just 5.6 percent
*2003-2013 Black student graduation rates increased from 38.2% to 40.3% compared to white graduation for the same years from 55.4% to 60.7%.
*Overall graduation rates a 4 year PUBLIC institutions improved in 2013, for example, for Blacks to 46% compared to 64.7% for white students
*A 2014 study by the Young Invincibles, a nonpartisan education and economic opportunity advocacy group, found an African-American college graduate has the same job prospects as a white high-school dropout or a white person with a prison record
*In February, the unemployment rate for African-Americans was 10.4 percent, while the comparable rates for whites were 4.7 percent
*According to data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics last week, The national unemployment rate was 5.5 percent last month. Last year, 23.7 percent of those who are black and unemployed had attended some college and 15.4 percent had bachelor's degrees.
Against this background of existential reality affecting the lives of African-American graduates of Howard and other colleges this or next month, we have a broader context to evaluate some of the following excerpts from Presidents Obama's Commencement address.
Among other remarks, he said:
"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."
"it's important to note progress. Because to deny how far we've come would do a disservice to the cause of justice, to the legions of foot soldiers; to not only the incredibly accomplished individuals who have already been mentioned, but your mothers and your dads, and grandparents and great grandparents, who marched and toiled and suffered and overcame to make this day possible. I tell you this not to lull you into complacency, but to spur you into action -- because there's still so much more work to do, so many more miles to travel".
"We cannot sleepwalk through life. We cannot be ignorant of history. (Applause.) We can't meet the world with a sense of entitlement. We can't walk by a homeless man without asking why a society as wealthy as ours allows that state of affairs to occur. We can't just lock up a low-level dealer without asking why this boy, barely out of childhood, felt he had no other options. We have cousins and uncles and brothers and sisters who we remember were just as smart and just as talented as we were, but somehow got ground down by structures that are unfair and unjust."
"We must expand our moral imaginations to understand and empathize with all people who are struggling, not just black folks who are struggling -- the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender person, and yes, the middle-aged white guy who you may think has all the advantages, but over the last several decades has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change, and feels powerless to stop it."
"To bring about structural change, lasting change, awareness is not enough. It requires changes in law, changes in custom. If you care about mass incarceration, let me ask you: How are you pressuring members of Congress to pass the criminal justice reform bill now pending before them? (Applause.) If you care about better policing, do you know who your district attorney is? Do you know who your state's attorney general is? Do you know the difference? Do you know who appoints the police chief and who writes the police training manual? Find out who they are, what their responsibilities are. Mobilize the community, present them with a plan, work with them to bring about change, hold them accountable if they do not deliver. Passion is vital, but you've got to have a strategy."
"And your plan better include voting -- not just some of the time, but all the time. 50
years after the Voting Rights Act, there are still too many barriers in this country to vote. There are too many people trying to erect new barriers to voting. This is the only advanced democracy on Earth that goes out of its way to make it difficult for people to vote. And there's a reason for that. There's a legacy to that."
"But let me say this: Even if we dismantled every barrier to voting, that alone would not
change the fact that America has some of the lowest voting rates in the free world. In 2014, only 36 percent of Americans turned out to vote in the midterms -- the second lowest participation rate on record. Youth turnout -- that would be you -- was less than 20 percent. Less than 20 percent. Four out of five did not vote. In 2012, nearly two in three African Americans turned out.
"In 2014, only two in five turned out. You don't think that made a difference in terms of the Congress I've got to deal with? And then people are wondering, well, how come Obama hasn't gotten this done? How come he didn't get that done? You don't think that made a difference? What would have happened if you had turned out at 50, 60, 70 percent, all across this country? People try to make this political thing really complicated. Like, what kind of reforms do we need? And how do we need to do that? You know what, just vote. It's math. If you have more votes than the other guy, you get to do what you want. (Laughter.) It's not that complicated."
"You don't have excuses. 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. (Applause.) Your grandparents, your great grandparents might be here today if they were working on it. What's your excuse?"
"When we don't vote, we give away our power, disenfranchise ourselves -- right when
we need to use the power that we have; right when we need your power to stop others from taking away the vote and rights of those more vulnerable than you are -- the elderly and the poor, the formerly incarcerated trying to earn their second chance."
"So you got to vote all the time, not just when it's cool, not just when it's time to elect a President, not just when you're inspired. It's your duty. When it's time to elect a member of Congress or a city councilman, or a school board member, or a sheriff. That's how we change our politics -- by electing people at every level who are representative of and accountable to us. It is not that complicated. Don't make it complicated."
"Democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right. This is hard to
explain sometimes. You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you. If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you're not going to get what you want. And if you don't get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged. And that will lead to more cynicism, and less participation, and a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair. And that's never been the source of our progress. That's how we cheat ourselves of progress."
"We remember Dr. King's soaring oratory, the power of his letter from a Birmingham jail, the marches he led. But he also sat down with President Johnson in the Oval Office to try and get a Civil Rights Act and a Voting Rights Act passed. And those two seminal bills were not perfect -- just like the Emancipation Proclamation was a war document as much as it was some clarion call for freedom. Those mileposts of our progress were not perfect. They did not make up for centuries of slavery or Jim Crow or eliminate racism or provide for 40 acres and a mule. But they made things better. And you know what, I will take better every time. I always tell my staff -- better is good, because you consolidate your gains and then you move on to the next fight from a stronger position."
We quote so extensively from President Obama's remarks at Howard University's recent commencement because we want to provide the reader an accurate context to some of criticism and caveats above and written below.
The president made a direct criticism and wider implied criticism of the "Black Lives Matter" movement that arose following the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and other killing of black men by police nationwide in 2015. It seems to us that he should have ALSO publicly acknowledged that, without the Black Lives Matter movement our nation and our media's attention would NOT HAVE URGENTLY have focused and confronted THIS issue.
Thus, while reminding the leaders and participants in the movement of the importance of registering to vote and then actually voting, the president's comments seemed to demean and diminish the courage and leadership of those committed young participants in the Black Lives Matter movement.
It is not enough to patronizingly lecture that "the perfect "should not be the enemy of the good or the better." He should have not just singled out Brittany Packnett, a leader in the Black Lives Matter Movement, for praise in meeting with him and other establishment political leaders. He should have said, flat out, like "Straight Outta of Compton", that leaders of the Movement, like Dr. King earlier, had forced America's conscience to confront the reality of successive police shootings of black men, in several circumstances where the use of non-lethal force appeared to be an available option to effect an arrest.
In effect, President Obama should have acknowledged that he AND ALL America owe a debt of gratitude to the courage and leadership of the Black Lives Matter movement in highlighting the apparent systemic racism in our criminal justice system when applied to African-Americans in several or our communities, nationwide.