Former President Barack Obama headlined a virtual commencement ceremony Saturday afternoon for graduates of the 74 historically black colleges and universities across the United States, delivering a powerful meditation on the way systemic racism infects the health and safety of black Americans – and calling on those watching to use their educations to fight it.

Obama touched on the major headlines of this moment, including the government’s response to the novel coronavirus, the way the pandemic has hit black people especially hard and the fatal shooting of a 25-year-old black jogger named Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia by two white men.

“You’re being asked to find your way in the world in the middle of a devastating pandemic and terrible recession. The timing is not ideal,” Obama said. “And let’s be honest. A disease like this just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country. We see it in the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on our communities, just as we see it when a black man goes for a jog, and some folks feel like they can stop and question and shoot him if he doesn’t submit to their questioning.”

“Injustice like this isn’t new,” Obama continued. “What is new is that so much of your generation has woken up to the fact that the status quo needs fixing; that the old ways of doing things don’t work; that it doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick; and that our society and democracy only works when we think not just about ourselves, but about each other.”

Obama took direct aim at government officials managing the coronavirus response in the United States.

“More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that the folks in charge know what they’re doing,” Obama said. “A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge. “

The speech capped off a two-hour live-streamed event called “Show Me Your Walk, HBCU Edition,” which included appearances from HBCU alumni, actors and actresses, NBA players and owners, corporate CEOs and artists. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif, a Howard University graduate, made an appearance. Comedian Kevin Hart hosted. COMMON, Steve Harvey, Gary Clark Jr. and Debbie Allen also made appearances.

But the main event was Obama’s commencement address, which was streamed on YouTube and social media by the event’s sponsor, Chase Bank, in partnership with Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the United Negro College Fund, the National Association for Equal Opportunity, the National Basketball Association, Paul Quinn College, Howard University and JPMorgan Chase’s Advancing Black Pathways Initiative.

In his message, Obama opened with a nod to the less-than-ideal circumstances under which the class of 2020 finished off their college education. Restrictions on large gatherings and mandates of physical distancing forced schools and universities across the country to shut down in-person classes earlier this spring and transition to online learning.

Obama said the HBCU graduates had still “earned this moment,” even if they spent the second half of the semester on “Zoom University.”

He also paid homage to the spirit of HBCU celebrations, which the live-streamed event tried to replicate with a roll call from school officials, short speeches from senior students and musical performances.

“… While our HBCUs are mostly known for an education rooted in academic rigor, community, and higher purpose – they also know how to turn up,” Obama said. “Nobody shines quite like a senior on the yard in springtime. Springfest at schools like Howard and Morehouse, that’s the time when you get to strut your stuff a little bit. And I know that in normal times, rivals like Grambling and Southern, Jackson State and Tennessee State, might raise some eyebrows at sharing a graduation ceremony. But these aren’t normal times.”

Obama said that now more than ever, HBCU graduates have the tools they need to seize their power to make change. Obama called on the 2020 class to be “bold” and have a “vision that isn’t clouded by cynicism or fear.”

“No generation has been better positioned to be warriors for justice and remake the world,” Obama said, adding that he would not tell the graduates how to use their power but only offer three pieces of advice.

First, he challenged them to take their advocacy beyond online activism and engage with grass-roots organizations. Next, he told the graduates they “can’t do it alone” and encouraged them to find “allies in common cause.”

“Rather than say what’s in it for me or what’s in it for my community and to heck with everyone else, stand up for and join up with everyone who’s struggling – whether immigrants, refugees, the rural poor, the LGBTQ community, low-income workers of every background, women who so often are subject to their own discrimination and burdens and not getting equal pay for equal work; look out for folks whether they are white or black or Asian or Latino or Native American,” Obama said.

Finally, he reminded the HBCU graduates that they are “inheritors of one of America’s proudest traditions.”

“You’re the folks we’ve been waiting for to come along,” Obama said. “That’s the power you hold.”

Obama’s remarks were the first of three commencement speeches he will deliver this year. The second event, “Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020,” will take place at 8 p.m. Saturday. The former president will also be joined by seniors from Chicago Public Schools and the Obama Youth Jobs Corps, all affiliated with the Obama Foundation. Hosted by the XQ Institute, the LeBron James Family Foundation and the Entertainment Industry Foundation, this one-hour special will air across all major networks and social media platforms, according to a news release.

On June 6, Obama will be joined by former first lady Michelle Obama for a global virtual commencement celebration, where they will each deliver separate messages to graduating students across the world. Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, along with musical performers Lady Gaga and Alicia Keys are also scheduled to participate in the June event.


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