A New Model for Civil Rights: Obama at Morehouse
Why the president’s commencement speech was more than just “finger-wagging”
On Sunday, President Obama addressed the graduating Class of 2013 at Morehouse College, which also awarded him an honorary doctorate. (You can find a transcript and video of his speech here and here, respectively.) His speech, while seemingly well-received by his audience at Morehouse, has drawn criticism from several commentators, including Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic, whose work I greatly respect. He and others argue that Obama’s Morehouse speech reflects a tendency of his to scold black audiences on personal responsibility while failing to address flawed policies that harm black communities. I’d like to submit a rebuttal to their claims.
It’s true that in many of his addresses to black audiences, President Obama discusses the importance of personal responsibility. I have no problem with this: there’s much value in getting “real talk” from someone who has shared experiences (e.g. having to overcome personal adversity and discrimination). This is why Obama’s address to Chicago in the wake of Hadiya Pendleton’s murder is different from his address to Newtown after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting: inner-city Chicago, like inner-city black America at large, deals with drugs, gangs, and gun violence on a regular basis; suburban Newtown does not. But I also believe that “real talk” must be balanced with a recognition of the institutional obstacles black Americans in particular still face. Focusing solely one or the other, as many left-wing and right-wing activists often do, generally ends up in empty rhetoric.
That said, every speech must be tailored to its particular audience. For a college commencement ceremony, an occasion marking the beginning of one’s independent journey into the world, I think an emphasis on what one can do personally to be successful is quite fitting. And in the context of black communities, where personal shortcomings are often magnified by structural adversity, it is especially appropriate. Furthermore, Morehouse prides itself on the archetype of the “Morehouse Man,” someone who is both a pillar of his individual community and black society at large. And, as Obama noted, industriousness is a core value of the Morehouse Man:
I understand there’s a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: “Excuses are tools of the incompetent used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.”
In fact, one thing I liked about President Obama’s speech was it that reflected upon black America’s history of resilience and achievement by citing examples specific to Morehouse, both past and present. This is, in my opinion, what saved it from becoming yet another stern lecture wrapped up in a black history lesson. (In contrast, the First Lady’s commencement speech at Bowie State University was much less successful.)
Yet Obama is full aware that how today’s graduates participate in their communities in order to carry out the Morehouse tradition will—and must—look different than the efforts of previous generations. Increasingly, civil rights initiatives require both intra- and inter-community efforts.
This notion, incidentally, is also what informs President Obama’s own policy initiatives. Some of his critics from within black communities—among the most prominent being Cornel West and Tavis Smiley—have derided this approach. They have argued that programs such as the Affordable Care and Jobs acts aren’t enough to address the dearth of employment that specifically plague black Americans. But in his Morehouse address, Obama lays out a two-pronged strategy for contemporary activism. I cite the following passages in particular:
So, yes, go get that law degree. But if you do, ask yourself if the only option is to defend the rich and the powerful, or if you can also find some time to defend the powerless. Sure, go get your MBA, or start that business. We need black businesses out there. But ask yourselves 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 just on making money—rather, they had a vision of how their product or service would change things, and the money followed.
Some of you may be headed to medical school to become doctors. But make sure you heal folks in underserved communities who really need it, too. For generations, certain groups in this country—especially African Americans—have been desperate in need of access to quality, affordable health care. And as a society, we’re finally beginning to change that.
And finally, as you do these things, do them not just for yourself, but don’t even do them just for the African American community. I want you to set your sights higher. At the turn of the last century, W.E.B. Du Bois spoke about the “talented tenth”—a class of highly educated, socially conscious leaders in the black community. But it’s not just the African American community that needs you. The country needs you. The world needs you.
At the government level, President Obama aims to shape and execute policy that realizes fully fleshed civil rights—not just theoretical rights but tangible access to the resources that all productive citizens need—for Americans of all races. But at the grassroots level, he implores the Morehouse graduates, and by extension, black America at large, to bolster those efforts by becoming role models not only for their own communities but for the nation. By serving their neighbors through their specific callings, he suggests, they can change and inspire America as a whole.
In other words, President Obama is calling for a new, radically inclusive approach to activism. Previous civil rights movements have been self-contained: while often inspired by and patterned after those of other groups, they served the interests of one specific community. But Obama is challenging today’s young adults to finally realize a society in which successful figures of color are considered exemplars for America as a whole, not just for people of color in America—and, ultimately, a society in which “civil rights” is immediately understood to be rights for all. In the wake of challenges to affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act, that’s an important message.