President Barack Obama drew from the weight of past and present racial justice struggles for his keynote speech at Howard University’s commencement in Washington, D.C. last Saturday (May 7).
For the first of his final three commencement speeches as a sitting president, President Obama centered themes of piecemeal progress, as in the following passage:
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.
He also implored graduates and audience members to embrace their versions of Black identity:
First of all—and this should not be a problem for this group—be confident in your heritage. [Applause.] Be confident in your Blackness. One of the great changes that’s occurred in our country since I was your age is the realization there’s no one way to be Black. Take it from somebody who’s seen both sides of debate about whether I’m Black enough. [Laughter.] In the past couple months, I’ve had lunch with the queen of England and hosted Kendrick Lamar in the Oval Office. There’s no straitjacket, there’s no constraints, there’s no litmus test for authenticity.
His near-hour-long remarks also touched on police violence, his daughters and Prince at various points. Watch President Obama’s commencement address above and read the full transcript via The Root.