On Saturday, May 7, President Barack Obama delivered the commencement address at Howard University, perhaps the most famous historically black college in the country. President Obama urged the graduates to “be confident in your blackness.”
President Obama was also presented with an honorary doctorate of law degree by Vernon Jordan, a civil rights leader who serves on Howard’s Board of Trustees.
The president’s speech ranged from the lighthearted to the serious, causing the audience to break out into spontaneous laughter and applause throughout the 45-minute address.
“Be confident in your heritage, be confident in your blackness,” the president told the graduates. “One of the great changes that’s occurred in the country since I was your age is the realization there’s no one way to be black, take it from someone who’s seen both sides of the debate about whether I’m black or not.”
“The past couple of months I’ve had lunch with the Queen of England and hosted Kendrick Lamar in the Oval Office,” he added. “There’s no straightjacket, there’s no constraint, there’s no litmus test for authenticity.”
Drawing on his experience as a community organizer and politician in Illinois, Obama also encouraged the graduates to push for much-needed change while also maintaining the ability to listen and compromise.
You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. I’ll repeat that. I want you to have passion, but you have to have a strategy. Not just awareness, but action. Not just hashtags, but votes.
You see, change requires more than righteous anger. It requires a program, and it requires organizing. At the 1964 Democratic Convention, Fannie Lou Hamer — all five-feet-four-inches tall — gave a fiery speech on the national stage. But then she went back home to Mississippi and organized cotton pickers. And she didn’t have the tools and technology where you can whip up a movement in minutes. She had to go door to door. And I’m so proud of the new guard of black civil rights leaders who understand this. It’s thanks in large part to the activism of young people like many of you, from Black Twitter to Black Lives Matter, that America’s eyes have been opened — white, black, Democrat, Republican — to the real problems, for example, in our criminal justice system.
Graduates of the class of 2016 will face unique challenges in the coming years. Millennials currently struggle with a record $1 trillion in college debt, and 20% of young people aged 18 to 24 qualify as being in “debt hardship.”
Obama also stressed the importance of voting, especially now that voter ID laws are once again becoming the law of the land in red states. According to President Obama, just 36% of Americans voted in 2014’s midterm elections, the second lowest voter turnout on record. Even worse, youth turnout was at an abysmal 20% that year.
And your plan better include voting — not just some of the time, but all the time. [Applause] It is absolutely true that 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.
And 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.
Finally, at the end of his address, the president advised graduates to remember a phrase that has proven useful to him over the past seven years: “Yes we can.”
To read the full transcript of President Obama’s Howard University Class of 2016 Commencement Address, click here.