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Benjamin Mays said “It will not be sufficient for Morehouse College, for any college, for that matter, to produce clever graduates… but rather honest men, men who can be trusted in public and private life -- men who are sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings, and the injustices of society and who are willing to accept responsibility for correcting [those] ills.”
A century and a half later, too little has changed. Yet the “Morehouse Mystique” still endures. Some of you probably came here from communities where everybody looked like you. Others may have come here in search of a community. And I suspect that some of you probably felt a little bit of inspiration the first time you came together as a class in King’s Chapel. All of a sudden, you joined hundreds of high school sports captains and student council presidents. Among this group of high achievers, you were all expected to do more.
Now, think about it. For black men in the ‘40s and the ‘50s, the threat of violence, the constant humiliations, large and small, the uncertainty that you could support a family, the gnawing doubts born of the Jim Crow culture that told you every day that somehow you were inferior, the temptation to shrink from the world, to accept your place, to avoid risks, to be afraid -- that temptation was necessarily strong.
And yet, here, under the tutelage of men like Dr. Mays, young Martin learned to be unafraid. And he, in turn, taught others to be unafraid. And over time, he taught a nation to be unafraid. And over the last 50 years, thanks to the moral force of Dr. King and a Moses generation that overcame their fear and their cynicism and their despair, barriers have come tumbling down, and new doors of opportunity have swung open, and laws and hearts and minds have been changed to the point where someone shares your commitment to global justice can somehow come to serve as President of these United States of America. (Applause.)
For black men in the ‘90s and the ‘2000s, the threat of incarceration, the constant humiliations in the media, the incentives to abandon commitments to family, the gnawing doubts born of the new Jim Crow culture that told you every day that somehow you were inferior, the temptation to shrink from the world, to accept suburban segregation, to avoid risks, to be afraid -- that temptation was unnecessarily strong.
Still, the vision and history we share should give you hope. The future we share should give you hope. You’re graduating into a surging world market, hungry for your creativity and determination. You’re living in a time when advances in technology and communication connect the world to your intellect. Your generation is uniquely poised to build a new, inclusive economy, unlike any generation of Americans that came before it.
Today, I ask you to work even harder than you already have -- because if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that too few of our brothers have the opportunities that you’ve had here at Morehouse. In troubled neighborhoods all across this country -- many of them heavily African American -- too few of our citizens have role models to guide them. Communities just a couple miles from my house in Chicago, communities just a couple miles from here -- they’re places where my administration works every day to help you open new businesses and support worldwide education based on Dr. King’s mission; where underfunded schools and pervasive violence reflect a local and national attitude of benign neglect; where poverty and segregation sabotage working families’ dreams of stability and safety.
My job, as President, is to advocate for policies that generate more opportunity for everybody -- policies that strengthen the middle class and give more people the chance to climb their way into the middle class. ...
But along with collective responsibilities, we have individual responsibilities. There are some things, as black men, we can only do for ourselves. There are some things, as Morehouse Men, that you are obliged to do for those still left behind. As Morehouse Men, you now wield something even more powerful than the diploma you’re about to collect -- and that’s the power of your commitment to a just, world economy.
I know that some of you came to Morehouse from communities where life was about keeping your head down and looking out for yourself. As emcee Mos Def wrote in the classic hip hop song “Thieves in the Night,” “Get yours first, them other people secondary / that type of thinking that fill up a cemetery.” <cheers, laughter> I was close, right?
Maybe you feel like you escaped, and now you can take your degree and get that fancy job and the nice house and the nice car -- and never look back. And don’t get me wrong -- with all those student loans you’ve had to take out, I know you’ve got to earn some money. With less opportunity for jobs than your parents and grandparents had, but greater chances to build truly global streams of income, no one expects you to take a vow of poverty. But I will say it betrays a poverty of ambition if all you think about is what goods you can buy instead of what wealth you can build. (Applause.)
So, yes, go get that law degree. But if you do, ask yourself if the only option is to defend the rich and the powerful, or if you can also find some time to embolden the powerless. Sure, go get your MBA, or start that business. We need global black businesses out there. But ask yourselves 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 just on making money -- rather, they had a vision of how their product or service would change things, and the money followed. (Applause.)
Some of you may be headed to medical school to become doctors. But make sure you heal folks in underserved communities who really need it, too. For generations, certain groups in this country -- especially African Americans -- have been desperate in need of access to quality, affordable health care. And as a society, we’re finally beginning to change that. Those of you who are under the age of 26 already have the option to stay on your parent’s health care plan. But all of you are heading into an economy where many young people expect not only to have multiple jobs, but also multiple careers, and, most importantly, hundreds of different kinds of assets.
Which brings me to a second point: Just as Morehouse has taught you to expect more of yourselves, inspire those who look up to you to build even greater systems of investment – both public and private. We know that too many young men in our community continue to make choices that continue generations of poverty. And I have to say, growing up, I made quite a few myself. Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. I had a tendency sometimes 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 the only remaining excuse is your access to institutional investment capital. (Applause.)
I understand there’s a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: “Excuses are tools of the incompetent used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.” Well, we’ve got no time to delay in eliminating this last barrier to your success because the bitter legacy of slavery and segregation have not vanished entirely. Racism and discrimination are still out there, especially in the colorblind policies of institutional finance. In today’s hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world, with millions of young people from China and India and Brazil -- many of whom started with a whole lot less than all of you did, yet greater access to capital and global investment – they enter the global workforce alongside you, and nobody is looking to you and your neighborhood for new investment unless you go and get their attention. (Applause.)
Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it differs profoundly from the hardships previous generations endured -- and overcame. And if they overcame then, you can overcome now, too. (Applause.)
You always hailed from a lineage and legacy of immeasurably strong men -- men who bore tremendous burdens and still laid the stones for the path on which we now walk. You wear the mantle of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, and Ralph Bunche and Langston Hughes, and George Washington Carver and Ralph Abernathy and Thurgood Marshall, and, yes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These men were many things to many people. And they knew full well the role that racism played in their lives. But when it came to their own accomplishments and sense of purpose, they understood how to seize their best opportunities, despite the obstacles they faced.
President Mays said, “Whatever you do, strive to do it so well that no man living and no man dead, and no man yet to be born can do it any better.” (Applause.)
And I promise you, what was needed in Dr. Mays’s time, that spirit of excellence, and hard work, and dedication, and no excuses is needed now more than ever. You must take command of this world economy because you have a Morehouse degree and it represents entry into a global network of a billion people working to end poverty and build systems of just enrichment. You must stay hungry, keep hustling, keep on your grind and get other folks to do the same – everyone, most of all – my administration – will help you. (Applause.)
And when I talk about pursuing excellence and setting an example, I’m not just talking about in your professional life. One of today’s graduates, Frederick Anderson -- where’s Frederick? Frederick, right here. (Applause.) I know it’s raining, but I'm going to tell about Frederick. Frederick started his college career in Ohio, only to find out that his high school sweetheart back in Georgia was pregnant. So he came back and enrolled in Morehouse to be closer to her. Pretty soon, helping raise a newborn and working night shifts became too much, so he started taking business classes at a technical college instead -- doing everything from delivering newspapers to buffing hospital floors to support his family.
And then he enrolled at Morehouse a second time. But even with a job, he couldn’t keep up with the cost of tuition. So after getting his degree from that technical school, this father of three decided to come back to Morehouse for a third time. (Applause.) As Frederick says, “God has a plan for my life, and He’s not done with me yet.” Today, I pledge to Frederick – my administration will work with you to help you save, invest, and build a new enterprise to sustain your young family.
And today, Frederick is a family man, and a working man, and a Morehouse Man. (Applause.) And that’s what I’m asking all of you to do: Keep setting an example for what it means to be a man. (Applause.) Be the best husband to your wife, or you’re your boyfriend, or your partner. Be the best father you can be to your children. Because nothing is more important. And your individual courage has the support of the greatest nation on Earth.
I was raised by a heroic single mom, wonderful grandparents -- made incredible sacrifices for me. And I know there are moms and grandparents here today who did the same thing for all of you. But I sure wish I had had a father who was not only present, but involved. Didn’t know my dad. And so my whole life, I’ve tried to be for Michelle and my girls what my father was not for my mother and me. I want to break that cycle where a father is not at home -- (applause) -- where a father is not helping to raise that son or daughter. I want to be a better father, a better husband, a better man. No one in national leadership stood up with my family when I was young, so I feel obligated to stand up with every family that needs support as long as I have breath.
It’s hard work that demands your constant attention and frequent sacrifice. And I promise you, Michelle will tell you I’m not perfect. She’s got a long list of my imperfections. (Laughter.) Even now, I’m still practicing, I'm still learning, still getting corrected in terms of how to be a fine husband and a good father. But I will tell you this: Everything else is unfulfilled if we fail at family, if we fail at that responsibility. (Applause.) Family, community, and nation remain interdependent – our success at each level relies on the commitments we make to each other.
I know that when I am on my deathbed someday, I will not be thinking about any particular legislation I passed; I will not be thinking about a policy I promoted; I will not be thinking about the speech I gave, I will not be thinking the Nobel Prize I received. I will be thinking about that walk I took with my daughters. I'll be thinking about a lazy afternoon with my wife. I'll be thinking about sitting around the dinner table and seeing them happy and healthy and knowing that they were loved. And I'll be thinking about whether I did right by all of them.
So be a good role model, set a good example for that young brother coming up. If you know somebody who’s not on point, go back and bring that brother along -- those who’ve been left behind, who haven’t had the same opportunities we have -- they need to hear from you. You’ve got to be engaged on the barbershops, on the basketball court, at church, spend time and energy and presence to give people opportunities and a chance. Pull them up, expose them, support their dreams. Don't put them down. Listen to them, and bring their ideas to the offices you occupy and the policies you create.
So it’s up to you to widen your circle of concern -- to care about justice for everybody, white, black and brown. Everybody. Not just in your own community, but also across this country and around the world. To make sure everyone has a voice, and everybody gets a seat at the table; that everybody, no matter what you look like or where you come from, what your last name is -- it doesn’t matter, everybody gets a chance to walk through those doors of opportunity if they are willing to work hard enough. Today, I pledge to use every office of the federal government to open the same doors of opportunity that made our military the finest in the world to reform our housing markets, our school systems, and our digital infrastructure.
When Leland Shelton was four years old -- where’s Leland? (Applause.) Stand up, Leland. When Leland Shelton was four years old, social services took him away from his mama, put him in the care of his grandparents. By age 14, he was in the foster care system. Three years after that, Leland enrolled in Morehouse. And today he is graduating Phi Beta Kappa on his way to Harvard Law School. (Applause.) But he’s not stopping there. As a member of the National Foster Care Youth and Alumni Policy Council, he plans to use his law degree to make sure kids like him don’t fall through the cracks. And it won’t matter whether they’re black kids or brown kids or white kids or Native American kids, because he’ll understand what they’re going through. And he'll be fighting for them. He'll be in their corner. That's leadership. That's a Morehouse Man right there. (Applause.) Leland, I promise you today that every donor who supported my campaigns will stand behind you and social entrepreneurs like you who are building an inclusive world that rejects the injustice of segregation that persists in our law, our media, and our investment networks.