Morehouse grads ‘proud’ to witness historic Obama commencement speech

ATLANTA – President Obama delivered a fearless and passionate commencement address at Morehouse College on Sunday, which despite the steady rain, left the crowds captivated.

Peppering his speech with light-hearted humor, Obama emphasized the importance of not only academic success but a willingness to serve the powerless and give back to underserved communities.

“But I will say it betrays a poverty of ambition if all you think about is what goods you can buy instead of what good you can do,” said Obama in a speech that at times sounded like a motivational sermon.

A momentous day

Wearing academic robes in maroon and black, the president encouraged the 500 graduating men to be positive role models for “those who’ve been left behind, who haven’t had the same opportunities we have — they need to hear from you.”

Amid the pomp and ceremony of the college’s 129th commencement, there was an undeniable feeling that Obama’s very presence was a momentous historical day: the first African-American president addressing the nation’s premier institution of higher education exclusively for young black men.

Indeed, he did not shy away from highlighting the significance of the occasion: “laws and hearts and minds have been changed to the point where someone who looks just like you can somehow come to serve as President of these United States of America.”

He also made reference to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who was “just 15 years old when he enrolled here at Morehouse” but his education “helped to forge the intellect, the discipline, the compassion, the soul force that would transform America.”

Obama gets personal

Linking the turbulent history of African-Americans to today’s opportunities for graduates, the president said “whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured — and they overcame them. And if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too.”

Speaking in strikingly personal terms the president also paid tribute to his “heroic single mom” but also talked about the challenges of being raised in a single-parent household. He said his father’s absence inspires him to be “a better father, a better husband, a better man.”

During the commencement President Obama was awarded an honorary law degree.

Despite the stormy weather, the rain-soaked crowds, mostly wearing plastic ponchos over their Sunday-best clothes, remained upbeat throughout the outdoor ceremony.

‘Proud and excited’

“I am happy, proud and excited and this is just one more blessing,” said Cherry Davis, of San Diego, California, whose middle son Byron Donovan, was graduating with a political science degree.

“I am very proud,” said Janie L Hendrix, the half sister of the legendary rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who resides in Seattle, Washington. She was there to see her son Claytin Hendrix Wright, 23, graduate with a bachelor’s degree in history.

“When my kids were little I read the story of Martin Luther King attending Morehouse College and that inspired them to attend here,” says Hendrix.”The lessons learned here are beyond academic. The instructors help these young men to become men of Morehouse.”

Hendrix is the mom of four sons and of these three have attended Morehouse College.

Other notable guests who attended included, Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), talk show host Steve Harvey, senior advisor to the president Valerie Jarrett and filmmaker Spike Lee, Spike Lee, who is an Atlanta native and a Morehouse man.

It was Obama’s second graduation speech in as many weeks. Last week, the president delivered the commencement address at Ohio State. His third and final speech of graduation season, at the U.S. Naval Academy, is scheduled for Friday.

Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter at @Kunbiti