First Lady Michelle Obama gave a civil-rights lesson and called for excellence at Jackson State University's Spring 2016 commencement at Veteran's Memorial
Photo by Imani Khayyam.
JACKSON First lady Michelle Obama dropped a history lesson and urged nearly 800 graduates to fight for excellence and use their power and numbers in voting to strive for progress at Jackson State University's Spring 2016 commencement. The commencement at Memorial Stadium in north Jackson, with nearly 35,000 visitors in the stands, was her 8th and final HBCU visit as the first lady. She has spoken at one historically black college or university yearly since her husband, Barack Obama, was elected president in 2008.
"Excellence is the most powerful answer you can give to the doubters and the haters," Obama said to the graduating class. "It's also the most powerful thing you can do for yourself because the process of striving and struggling and pushing yourself to new heights, 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."
Obama touched on the Civil Rights Movement, the deaths of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers, and quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and discriminatory voting practices intended to keep African Americans from voting, such as being forced to recite the Constitution or correctly guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar in order to register. She also pointed out that while the state has progressed since the 1960s, there is still room to grow, especially under the passage of recent bills.
“If we fail to exercise our fundamental right to vote, then I guarantee that so much of the progress we’ve fought for will be under threat,” she said. “Congress will still be gridlocked. Statehouses 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 got to stand side by side with all our neighbors—straight, 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,” the first lady added, standing in the same stadium where then Gov. Ross Barnett rallied Confederate flag-waving Ole Miss fans to support segregation in 1962.
“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.”
On April 5, Gov. Phil Bryant signed HB 1523 which will allow business owners to refuse service to LGBT people based on "sincerely held religious beliefs." The "Protecting Freedom of Conscience From Government Discrimination Act" will become law in July unless lawmakers repeal it or courts strike it down. It's already provoked backlash from other states with several banning paid travel for government officials, performers cancelling shows in the state and a long list of businesses issuing statements against the bill.
In closing, the first lady challenged graduates to honor the legacy of the past by making their marks on the future. "Be excellent at everything that you do," she said. "Be an excellent boss, be an excellent employee, an excellent parent, 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 playing small," she said.
Obama has started multiple education initiatives including Let Girls Learn, a program dedicated to helping educate girls around the world, and Reach Higher, an effort to get young Americans to complete their education past high school, whether at a community college, professional training program or a four-year college or university.
Her next college visits are May 26 at the Santa Fe Indian School and June 3 at the City College of New York campus in Harlem.
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