ATLANTA — President Obama, in a soaring commencement address on work, sacrifice and opportunity, on Sunday told graduates of historically black Morehouse College to seize the power of their example as black men graduating from college and use it to improve people’s lives.
The president said his success was due to “the special obligation I felt, as a black man like you, to help those who need it most, people who didn’t have the opportunities that I had – because there but for the grace of God, go I. I might have been in their shoes. I might have been in prison. I might have been unemployed. I might not have been able to support a family. And that motivates me.”
Noting the Atlanta school’s mission to cultivate, not just educate, good men, Obama said graduates should not be so eager to join the chase for wealth and material things, but instead should remember where they came from and not “take your degree and get a fancy job and nice house and nice car and never look back.”
“So yes, go get that law degree. But if you do, ask yourself if the only option is to defend the rich and powerful, or if you can also find time to defend the powerless,” Obama said. “Sure, go get your MBA, or start that business, we need black businesses out there. But ask yourself 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 on making money. Rather, they had a vision of how their product or service would change things, and the money followed,” he said.
For those headed to medical school, Obama said, “Make sure you heal folks in underserved communities who really need it, too.”
Before Obama arrived in Atlanta, thunderstorms drenched hundreds of people who gathered on the campus lawn for the outdoor ceremony, forcing many guests to wear clear plastic ponchos over what amounted to their Sunday-best clothes. Rain began falling again, accompanied by more thunder and lightning, minutes after Obama began to speak.
“I also have to say you all are going to get wet,” he said. “I would be out there with you if I could. But Secret Service gets nervous, so I’m going to have to stay here, dry. But know that I’m with you in spirit.”
Obama urged graduates to “inspire those who look up to you to expect more of themselves.”
Obama used the speech to once again share his personal story of growing up without a father, confessing that along the way he made unspecified bad personal choices “like too many men in our community.”
“Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down,” he said. “I had a tendency 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.”
Speaking in personal terms as he often does when addressing predominantly black audiences, particularly of black males, the nation’s first black president also spoke intimately of his desire to be a better father to daughters Malia and Sasha than his absent father was to him, and to be a better husband to his wife, Michelle.
He told the graduates to pay attention to their families, saying success in every other aspect of life means nothing without success at home.
“I was raised by a heroic single mother and wonderful grandparents who made incredible sacrifices for me. And I know there are moms and grandparents here today who did the same thing for all of you,” he said. “But I still wish I had a father who was not only present, but involved. And so my whole life, I’ve tried to be for Michelle and my girls what my father wasn’t for my mother and me. I’ve tried to be a better husband, a better father and a better man.
“It’s hard work that demands your constant attention, and frequent sacrifice. And Michelle will be the first to tell you that I’m not perfect,” he continued. “Even now, I’m still learning how to be the best husband and father I can be. Because success in everything else is unfulfilling if we fail at family.
“I know that when I’m on my deathbed someday, I won’t be thinking about any particular legislation I passed, or policy I promoted. I won’t be thinking about the speech I gave, or the Nobel Prize I received,” said Obama, 51. “I’ll be thinking about a walk I took with my daughters, a lazy afternoon with my wife, whether I did right by all of them.”
he speech was Obama’s second commencement address of the season, following remarks last Sunday at Ohio State University in Columbus. His third and final graduation address will come Friday at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
About 500 students received undergraduate degrees on Sunday and became “Morehouse Men.”