ATLANTA – President Barack 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. Rain began falling again, accompanied by more thunder and lightning, minutes after Obama began to speak.
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.”
About 500 students received undergraduate degrees on Sunday and became “Morehouse Men.”