It was pouring down rain, but the atmosphere and what I was hearing made it seem as if the sun was shining.
“I have to say that it is one of the great honors of my life to be able to address this gathering here today,” President Barack Obama said not long after coming onto a covered stage to address the 500 graduating seniors at Morehouse College last week in Atlanta.
As America’s first black president speaking at the 129th commencement of this historically black college – the nation’s only private liberal arts institution dedicated to the education of African-American men – it is understandable why Obama would say such words.
It is also understandable why he would deliver such a meaningful speech in such a setting, even though some believe certain things are better left unsaid in public when it comes to issues of race.
I disagree and applaud President Obama for speaking out and giving the Morehouse graduates the advice they needed to hear. And, not only for the graduates, but also for their family, friends and others as well.
Among other things, the president talked about Morehouse’s history, mission and tradition, being a “training ground not only for individual success, but for leadership that can change the world.
“The future we share should give you hope,” Obama said. “You’re graduating into an improving job market. You’re living in a time when advances in technology and communication put the world at your fingertips. Your generation is uniquely poised for success unlike any generation of African-Americans that came before it.
“That doesn’t mean we don’t have to work – 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 of miles from my house in Chicago, communities just a couple of miles from here – they’re places where jobs are still too scarce and wages are still too low; where schools are underfunded and violence is pervasive; where too many of our men spend their youth not behind a desk in a classroom, but hanging out on the streets or brooding behind a jail cell.”
That’s hurtful to some, but it’s the truth.
And then there was the message about individual responsibilities.
“Just as Morehouse has taught you to expect more of yourselves, inspire those who look up to you to expect more of themselves,” Obama said. Adding that he understood there’s a common fraternity creed at Morehouse: “Excuses are tools of the incompetent used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness,” Obama said. “We’ve got no time for excuses.
“Not because the bitter legacy of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they have not. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; we know those are still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyper-connected, 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 – all of them entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned.”
Back in 2004, the comedian, actor and activist Bill Cosby delivered a speech in which he criticized some blacks for their poor lifestyles. It caused some people to ask, “Was Bill Cosby right?”
Yes, some people have asked that about President Obama’s Morehouse speech.
It was needed. It was on time. There was nothing wrong with the president telling the Morehouse graduates he wants their help in breaking the cycle where a dad is not at home.
There was nothing wrong with the president saying he wants to see more of them become role models and leaders, not only throughout America but also around the world. He even pointed out a few of them among the graduating seniors that day.
Yes, it rained at Morehouse College’s commencement, but it was such a great event that I don’t even remember whether I got wet.
Dwight Lewis was editorial page editor, news editor, weekly columnist and reporter for The Tennessean for 40 years before retiring in 2011. He is a member of First Baptist Church of Capitol Hill in Nashville, Tenn. A version of this column first appeared in The Tennessean and is used with permission.