First Lady Michelle Obama’s Commencement Address at Jackson State University | MPB

First Lady Michelle Obama’s Commencement Address at Jackson State University | MPB


(cheers and applause) – Hey! (cheers and applause) I’m a Tiger now! (laughs)
(cheers and applause) Oh my goodness,
you all good? [audience cheers] All right, enough about me,
this is about you. (laughs) Let me start by
thanking Dr. Meyers for that wonderful introduction,
and more importantly, for her leadership of
this fine university. I also wanna thank Mayor Yarber,
Representative Thompson, and all of the elected officials
and members of congress who are here with us today, as well as Mr. Perry, all of the trustees, Dr. Blaine, Rev. Rhodes, of course all of the
faculty and staff here at Jackson State, let’s
just take a moment (cheers and applause)
to give it up to the people who
helped get you here. Thank you all for your
incredible hospitality. I wouldn’t be anywhere
else but here. I may be a little jet
lagged, but I’m here right now to
celebrate all of you, (cheers and applause)
so I’m grateful. I also have to thank
the symphonic band and both of the choirs today
for that beautiful music. You all are amazing! And of course,
before we go way in, we have to give it up to
all the folks in the stands who helped you all get here.
(cheers and applause) The moms and dads, brothers,
sisters, grandparents, cousins, friends,
neighbors, all of you all! Let’s give it up! Give it up! (cheers and applause) And finally, most of all, I wanted to join
in congratulating ooh, what a good looking group, the men and women of Jackson State University class of 2016!
(cheers and applause) Woo! You all deserve all of that
more because I know how hard you worked to make
it to this day. Studying late into the night. Writin’ and re-writin’
those papers. Takin’ all those exams! Oh my lord! But I also heard
that you happen to be able to have some fun over
these past years, as well. Hangin’ out at
Gibbs-Green Plaza, turnin’ up on HotSpot
Fridays at the Horseshoe. (cheers and applause) Don’t get too excited, mom
and dad are in the stands. Gearin’ up for
Homecoming and TigerFest, rockin’ the house with one of
the best bands in the country, the Sonic Boom of the South. (cheers and applause) Together, you all are the Superb 16,
(cheers and applause) as I hear you call yourselves. And you’re about to
join a storied legacy from this university. A school that began as
a tiny Baptist seminary just 20 students strong. You hear me? Just 20 students! But today has a
legacy that reaches across the country and the state and right here into
this very stadium. And that’s actually
where I’d like to start my remarks today. With this storied stadium and its place in our
nation’s history. Now, back in 1950, when
this stadium was built, it was one of the finest
stadiums in the country. Quickly became the
pride of Mississippi. But the story of this
beautiful complex also has a darker side. For years it stood as
a steel and concrete tribute to segregation because Jim Crow laws meant
that only white teams and fans were allowed
through these gates. Back in 1962, during an
Ole Miss football game, the stadium became the site
of what was essentially a pro-Jim Crow rally with
fans wavin’ Confederate flags and singing’ a song
called “Never, No Never” to protest the admission of
an African-American student to their university. By half-time, they’d convinced
the governor to even speak. He said just three sentences. He said “I love Mississippi. “I love her people, our customs. “I love and respect
our heritage.” And the crowd went wild because they knew exactly what he meant. That game was just one
small moment in a struggle of civil rights that
inflamed this entire country, but often burned hottest right here in Mississippi, the state where a 14-year
old boy named Emmett Till was beaten and murdered. Where NAACP leader Medgar
Evers was assassinated. Where Freedom Riders
overflowed the jails. Where gunshots would ring
out here on your campus, killing young people and
littering one of your dorms with bullet holes
still seen today. It was against that backdrop that one day in October
of 1967 something truly extraordinary
happened in this stadium. For years legal and
political pressures had been mounting for
the state to desegregate. And that fall, the state finally announced that for
the first time, two black teams would get
to play in this stadium. Those teams were Grambling State and of course your own
Jackson State Tigers! (cheers and applause) Now just think for a moment. You can only imagine
the pressure those teams and their fans were feeling. For so long, this field
had been the pride of white, and white only,
Mississippi, and now black fans would
fill these stands. Black coaches would
patrol these sidelines. Black players would sweat
and bleed on this field. How would the world respond? Would those forces of
segregation rise up in protest? Or worse? As one of the players at the
time said, and this is a quote, he said “There was
certainly potential for it “to become a very
ugly situation.” So the Jackson State coach
at the time, Coach Paige, thought hard about how
to prepare his team. He sat is players
down and told them to stay focused on two goals. The first, beat Grambling State, of course one of the best
teams in the country. The second, he said “Rise above the fray “and set a good example.” He said, because the whole
state, the whole country would be watching. So the players made sure
their shoes were shined, their laces tied. They took special pains not
to accidentally break anything in the locker room or
walk out with a towel. Because as the player said,
and these are his words, he said, “We all wanted
to be representatives “of our families, our
hometowns, our communities. “We wanted to take care of that
stadium as much as we could “so it would be there
for the next black team.” And then they went out and
they played their hearts out. And Jackson State won that
game, giving Grambling its only loss of the season. But more importantly, the world saw
what would happen when black folks came
into this stadium. What did they see? (scoffs) They saw people enjoying
a football game. They saw the same kind of
skill and sportsmanship and strategy as any other game
the stand had hosted before. So by simply showing and
displaying sportsmanship, those players and
coaches and fans joined the long line of heroes who made history in this
country, in our schoolhouses, our department stores,
our lunch counters, and everywhere else. All of them using the
same time-tested approach that has always moved
this country forward. They didn’t stoop to the
level of those who sought to oppress them. Just the opposite. They rose up, they combated
small-mindedness with dignity, integrity, and excellence. That is the well-worn path
to Dr. King’s mountaintop that so many men and women
before us have taken. Famous civil rights
leaders and ordinary folks who’ve faced down dogs
and batons and fire hoses with prayer and hope and
steadfast determination. For as Dr. King
told us, he said, “Darkness cannot
drive out darkness. “Only light can do that. “Hate cannot drive out hate.
Only love can do that.” And graduates, I am here
today to tell you that that approach to life
isn’t just somethin’ you should read about
in the history books. It’s a roadmap for
how to live your lives every single day. And how do I know? (laughs) Because I’ve seen
the power of that approach up close and personal. See, when I hear words like
dignity and excellence, I think about my husband. (cheers and applause) See, I know I’m biased. And I do think he’s
cute, too. (laughs) (cheers and applause) But as I’ve walked this
journey with Barack, I’ve gotten a pretty good
look at what it means to rise above the fray. What it means to set
your eyes on the horizon, to devote your life to
making things better for those who will
come after you. I have seen how, no matter
what kind of ugliness is going on at any
particular moment, Barack always stays the course. (cheers) See, I’ve watched him stay
up late night after night reading and writing and
wrestling with the impossible decisions that a president
is forced to make. I’ve been inspired by
his tireless effort to engage people
of all backgrounds, respectfully listening to
folks who disagree with him, bringing folks together to
solve our common problems, and week after week, I
see him read the letters he gets from people
across this country. And let me tell you, he
writes back because he knows that they are who he serves. I see him dedicating
himself to helping folks on the margins, folks who
don’t often have a voice. That is the work of his life. From his days as a community
organizer in Chicago to his time in the
White House today. And we all know that that empathy, that preparation, that moral compass, that
relentless work ethic have led to so much progress
over the past seven years. We’ve gone from the brink
of another Great Depression in this country to our
businesses creating more than 14 million new jobs. Our unemployment rate
has been cut in half. Our deficits are
down by two thirds. Our high school graduation rates are the highest on record. Over 20 million more people
now have health insurance. And people in this
country are finally free to marry the person they love. And on the global stage, the
vast majority of our troops are home today, and our
country isn’t putting our heads in the sand on climate change. No, we are leading
the way to stop it. I could go on and on,
but that’s the progress we’ve seen under this president. That’s the kind of change
we all hoped was possible eight years ago. Yet it, too often,
instead of acknowledging or celebrating this change,
we have a tendency to focus on conflict and controversy. We pay endless attention to
folks who are blockin’ action. Blockin’ judges,
blockin’ immigration, blockin’ a raise in the
minimum wage, just blockin’! We are consumed with
the anger and vitriol that are bubblin’ up with
folks shoutin’ at each other. Usin’ hateful and
divisive language. And then there are
the countless times when that language
gets personal. And is directed at my husband. Charges that he doesn’t
love our country. The time he was called
a liar in front of a joint session of Congress. The nonstop questions
about his birth certificate and his belief in God. (cheers) (frustrated laugh) Now, I know that politics has
always been a rough sport. I also know that well-meaning
folks can get heated in the midst of
contentious debates. And in light of today’s
24-hour news cycle, in this era where our
Facebook feeds are limited to the voices of folks who
think exactly like we do, and our TVs and radios
are exclusively tuned in to those who tell us
only what we wanna hear, it’s not surprising
that our disagreements have become more
personal, more intense. It’s not surprising that we,
too often, demean or dismiss opinions that are
different than our own. But we would be kidding
ourselves if we didn’t acknowledge that
those age old issues that have always
roiled our country, the problems a
lot of folks would just rather brush under the rug, those challenges are
still with us today. We can’t deny it. However, graduates, even in these volatile times, it would be unfair for us to
ignore the changes we’ve seen in a generation. No longer can we be barred
from a university or hotel or arrested for sitting
at the front of the bus or forced to use a
separate bathroom or water fountain because
of the color of our skin. No one’s going to poll-test us by demanding that we
recite the constitution or correctly guess the number
of jelly beans in a jar before we’re allowed to vote. So, yes, we continue to make
progress here in America. But we also know that
the shadows of the past have not completely
disappeared. Despite all the
progress we’ve made, I know that so many of you
still see these shadows every single day. Maybe it’s when you’re
drivin’ somewhere, and you’re stopped for
no particular reason. Maybe it’s when the
store you enter into folks seem to keep an extra
close eye on you as you shop. Maybe it’s when you
walk down the sidewalk and folks cross the street
when they see you coming. Maybe it’s when the
early voting location in your neighborhood just
happens to be closed. Or law after law is passed
about the kind of ID you need to cast your vote. Maybe it’s all those schools
that, despite the laws, are still very much
separate and unequal. Or the criminal justice
system that still doesn’t provide truly equal
justice for far too many. Or those neighborhoods
that are struggling still to overcome the
painful legacy of the past. I wish I could say
otherwise, graduates, but the question isn’t
whether you’re gonna come face to face
with these issues, the question is how you’re
gonna respond when you do. (light applause) Are you gonna throw up
your hands and say that progress will never come? Are you gonna get
angry and lash out? Are you gonna turn
inward and just give in to despair and frustration? Or are you gonna
take a deep breath, straighten your shoulders,
lift up you head, and do what Barack
Obama has always done, as he says, “When they
go low, I go high.” (cheers and applause)
That’s the choice Barack and I have made that’s what has kept
us sane over the years. We simply do not allow
space in our hearts, minds, or souls
for darkness. Instead, we choose faith. Faith in ourselves, in
the power of hard work. Faith in our God, whose overwhelming love sustains us every single day. That’s what we choose.
(applause) We choose love. Our love for our children, our commitment to leaving
them a better world. Our love for our country, which has given us so many
blessings and advantages. Our love for our
fellow citizens, parents working hard
to support their kids, men and women in uniform
who risk everything to keep us safe, young people from the
toughest backgrounds who never stop believing
in their dreams, young people like
so many of you. That’s what we choose. And we choose excellence. We choose to tune
out all the noise and strive for excellence
in everything we do. No cuttin’ corners,
no takin’ shortcuts, no whining, we give
120% every single time because excellence, excellence is the
most powerful answer you can give to the
doubters and the haters. (cheers and applause) It’s also the most powerful
thing you can do for yourself. See, ’cause the process
of striving and strugglin’ and pushin’ yourself
to new heights, see that’s how you develop
your God-given talents. That’s how you make
yourself stronger and smarter and more able to
make a difference for others. So those are the choices
that Barack and I have made. Because in the end,
we know our history, and we know that there
will always be challenges and obstacles. But we also know that what we’re dealing
with today is nothing. Nothing compared to the
violence, discrimination, and hatred that folks
faced decades ago. And while this may feel
like a volatile time, while we may be
rightfully horrified by the the divisive
rhetoric we’re hearing in our public conversation, while we may be brokenhearted that we’re still dealing
with the issues of poverty, and mass incarceration,
and gun violence, it is remarkable progress
that these issues are seeing the
light of day at all. It’s remarkable progress
that the vast majority of Americans in all
corners of the country vehemently disagree with
this hateful language. It is remarkable progress
that we’re having these conversations
on a national level and not just in black
communities, but
in all communities. So graduates, make
no mistake about it, this moment presents a historic
opportunity for change. And your generation, more than any generation
in our history, truly has the tools
and opportunities you need to seize this moment. I want you to think
about the statistics today, more African-Americans
are graduating from college, succeeding in our workplaces, taking on positions
of leadership, and reporting greater
optimism about the future an optimism, by the way,
that I very much share, so the question is, are you ready to step up and use your power and your
privilege to make change? Will you honor the legacy
of those who came before you who fought so hard,
sacrificed so much so that you could be
here in this stadium wearin’ those beautiful
caps and gowns today? And if you have any question
as to what that legacy is, let me just share
with you a quick story. Several months ago, I was
meeting with a group of teenage girls from
Washington, DC, and one of the asked me, “Well, what do you
think Dr. King would say “about everything
that’s goin’ on today?” And I told her that
none of us can really answer that question,
but I said that Dr. King would probably
answer with a simple question, and that is, “Did
you vote?” (laughs) (cheers)
“Did you vote?” See, I told the young
woman that I think Dr. King would be very
concerned that after folks like Medgar Evers
and so many others gave their lives fighting
for the right to vote, that today in almost
every election, more than half of
young African-Americans have essentially
disenfranchised themselves. In the 2014 mid-terms,
African-American youth turnout was less than 20%. Fewer than one in five of
our young people voted. And here in Mississippi,
it was almost lower. Certainly lower. But what Dr. King
understood was that one of the surest
paths to progress here in America runs straight
through the voting booth. That’s been the key
to every single stride we have ever taken
in this country, from fighting discrimination
to passing health care, it all starts with the ballot. So graduates, as
you seek to develop your own strategies to
address the problems that still plague
our communities, I just ask you to remember that the power of voting is real and lasting. So you can hash tag all
over Instagram and Twitter, but those social media movements will disappear faster
than a Snapchat if you’re not also
registered to vote. If you’re not also sending
in your absentee ballot. If we fail to exercise our
fundamental right to vote, then I guarantee that so much of the progress we fought
for will be under threat. Congress will still
be gridlocked. State houses will continue
to roll back voting rights and write discrimination
into the law. We see it right here in
Mississippi, just two weeks ago, how swiftly progress
can hurtle backward, how easy it is to
single out a small group and marginalize them because of who they are or who they love. So we’ve gotta stand side by
side with all our neighbors. Staight, gay, lesbian, bisexual,
transgender, Muslim, Jew, Christian, Hindu,
immigrant, Native American, because the march
for civil rights isn’t just about
African-Americans, It’s about all Americans. It’s about making
things more just, more equal, more free for
all our kids and grandkids. That’s the story you all have
the opportunity to write. That’s what this
historic university
has prepared you to do. So graduates, here is my
challenge to you today, I want you to honor
the legacy of our past by making your
mark on the future. Graduates, I want you
to choose a career that you believe in. Something that doesn’t
just make money, but that truly makes a
difference for others. And I want you to do whatever
you can to reach back and pull those who still
are struggling, with you. Graduates, I want you all to be excellent at everything you do. Be an excellent boss, be
an excellent employee, be an excellent parent,
mentor, congregant, neighbor. Be excellent! And graduates, when you
encounter small slights, or small people, I hope and I pray
that you stand tall and respond with
dignity and grace. Because no one, no
one ever succeeds in this world by playin’ small. And finally, graduates, I
just want you to remember that decades from now,
someone will be standing here where I’m standin’ today, and they will be tellin’
that new class of graduates about all of you. So we’re counting
on you to live lives worthy of retelling. Lives that will inspire
our next generation to keep walkin’ that
path to righteousness, and doing the work to
fulfill that dream. ‘Cause here’s the thing, I know you can do that and so much more. That’s why I’m here, I
am so proud of you all for makin’ it to this day. For pushing and fighting. Because I now that if you
hold tight to the example of the folks that
led us this far, if you choose faith and love, if you strive always for
dignity and excellence, then there is absolutely
nothing you can’t achieve. I say that from the
bottom of my heart because I’m not here because
I’m special, I was you. And if I can be here,
you can do it, too. And if you ever doubt
the impact you can have, I just want you to think back
to the story of this school. This great school that
you are now a part of. That tiny little seminary, as you see, is now a
distinguished university, one of the largest, most
vibrant HBCUs in the country, this is your alma mater
(cheers and applause) pushing forward in
science and technology, the arts, education,
and so much more. You all! That’s your legacy! And that Jackson State football
coach I mentioned earlier, who helped desegregate
this stadium? His full name is Rod Paige. And he went on to
become our nation’s first African-American
Secretary of Education. (cheers and applause) And as for that crowd
that rallied for segregation in these stands
singing “Never, No Never”? Well just 50 years later, our country elected an
African-American president for a second term, declaring “Yes, we can!”
(cheers and applause) Graduates, that is
what’s possible in
this country of ours. That is the direction
history can take when passionate, courageous,
talented, young people, like all of you, step
up and lead the way. I know you got it in you. I can feel it right from here, and as you say here
at Jackson State, the world better get ready,
because here y’all come! (cheers and applause) I love you all so much! I hope you have
a phenomenal day. I will pray for you
every step of the way. God bless you all. (cheers and applause)
Good luck on the road ahead. (Cheers and applause) Proud of you all. (Cheers and applause) Proud of you guys. Do it! Get it done!

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