Story by L.A. Warren
After tens of thousands waited for hours in the blazing sun Saturday to hear Michelle Obama’s commencement address to Jackson State University graduates, the temperature nudged even higher inside the Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium as the first lady touched on the state’s historic past and denounced its recently enacted “Religious Freedom” bill.
She acknowledged the state’s “incredible hospitality” then delivered a rousing speech that sounded more like a sermon that combined heat and thunder. Despite having just arrived from London to celebrate the queen’s 90th birthday, she said, “I wouldn’t be anywhere else but here. I may be a little jetlagged, but I’m here, right now, to celebrate all of you.”
Reflecting on its humble beginnings as a Baptist seminary with just 20 students, she described today’s JSU as a “distinguished university – one of the largest, most vibrant HBCUs in the country.”
JSU President Carolyn W. Meyers called the occasion a special moment for graduates, the Jackson State community and Mississippi because “it’s the first time a sitting first lady of the United States of America has graced us with her presence.”
Doctor of Humane Letters
Meyers said, “I am especially honored to be in the company of this community that understands the promise of learning and that walk the walk and not just talk the talk.” Furthermore, she said, “Together when we get this business of education right the state, the nation and the whole world benefit.”
Before Obama delivered her address, Meyers conferred to Obama the university’s highest academic honor – the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters – for leadership, service, achievement and inspiration.
In her speech, Obama recapped the state’s well-documented history and retraced its actions about three weeks ago when it passed controversial legislation that opponents say legalizes discrimination against many individuals.
She said, “We’ve got to stand side by side with all our neighbors – straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender; Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindu immigrants, Native Americans. The march to civil rights isn’t just about African-Americans, it’s about all Americans.”
Obama told degree recipients that JSU has prepared them for preventing Mississippi from taking steps backward because “your generation, more than any generation in our history, truly has the tools and opportunities you need to seize this moment. 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 wearing those beautiful caps and gowns today?”
Midterm voter apathy
One of the ways to avoid regression, the first lady said, is through the ballot box. “Today in almost every election, more than half of young African-Americans have essentially disenfranchised themselves. In the 2014 midterms, African-Americans youth turnout was less than 20 percent – fewer than one in five of our young people voted. And, here in Mississippi, it was almost lower, certainly lower,” she said.
“I just ask you to remember that the power of voting is real and lasting. So, you can hashtag all over Instagram and Twitter, but those social media movements will disappear faster than a Snapchat if you’re not also registered to vote,” declared Obama, saying failure to exercise that fundamental right threatens progress.
And, speaking of the memorial stadium, Obama reminded graduates of the darker side “of this beautiful complex” built in 1950. “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 the gates.” She said the facility became “the site of what was essentially a pro-Jim Crow rally” when in 1962 during an Ole Miss football game spectators waved Confederate flags and sang “Never No Never” to protest the admission of its first African-American student, James Meredith.
That lightning rod, she said, was a small moment that burnished into people’s minds the struggles to achieving civil rights in a state that had become roiled over the death of 14-year-old Emmett Till, the assassination of state NAACP leader Medgar Evers and the arrests of Freedom Riders who inundated jailhouses. Even closer to home, she reminded the audience of the 1970 tragedy when City of Jackson police officers and state troopers stormed Jackson State’s campus and fired on Alexander Hall, a woman’s dormitory. Two people were killed and 12 injured in that terror.
Memorial stadium opens to blacks
But then something spectacular happened with the stadium, Obama said. After legal and political pressure to desegregate in 1967, the state relaxed its hard-line stance and allowed two black university football teams (Jackson State and Grambling State) to compete in that previously forbidden facility where Saturday nearly 800 mostly African-African undergraduates would receive their academic degrees.
She credits the watershed moment to JSU alum and former U.S. education secretary Rod Paige for preparing Jackson State. Paige, who was the head coach at the time, not only led the football team to victory but instructed athletes to “rise above the fray and set a good example because the whole state, the whole country would be watching.”
She said those players, with shoes shined and laces tied, “took special pains not to accidentally break anything in the locker room or walk out with a towel.” Quoting one of the players, Obama said the team “wanted to take care of the stadium as much as we could so it would be there for the next black team.”
Jackson State and Paige accomplished that goal, won the game and displayed the “same kind of skill and sportsmanship and strategy as any other game this stadium had hosted before,” Obama said. “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,” giving credence to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Despite the progress, Obama said, “we also know that the shadows of the past have not completely disappeared. … I know that so many of you still see these shadows every single day. Maybe it’s when … 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.”
The first lady said the question isn’t whether you’re going to come face to face with these issues but how are you going to respond when you do. “Are you going to throw up your hands and say that progress will never come?”
President Obama’s guiding principles
She then invoked her husband’s name and listed his guiding principles of dignity and excellence. “Are you going to take a deep breath, straighten your shoulders, lift up your head, and do what Barack Obama has always done? As he says: ‘When they go low, I go high.’ We simply do not allow space in our hearts, minds or souls for darkness. Instead, we choose faith … in our God, whose overwhelming love sustains us every single day.”
Mrs. Obama admitted to being a bit biased and loyal to the commander in chief because of his values and the fact that “I think he’s cute, too,” she said humorously.
The first lady then touted the administration’s successes in preventing another Great Depression, creating 14 million new jobs, returning service members home and providing 20 million more people with health coverage. She also trumpeted reduction in the unemployment rate and the deficit, and the country’s move toward allowing Americans to marry the person they love.
While acknowledging politics can be brutal, Mrs. Obama said she yearns for an end to the political morass and brinksmanship that threaten judicial confirmations, immigration and minimum wage hikes.
Her light-hearted moments, though, paid tribute to JSU for its renowned “rocking” Sonic Boom of the South, symphonic band and choirs and popular events such as Hotspot Fridays at the Horseshoe on the Gibbs-Green plaza. She thanked Meyers for “pushing forward in science and technology; the arts; education; and so much more.”
Tribute to supporters
Also, the first lady especially reminded graduates that they did not get here on their own.
“We have to give it up to all the folks in the stands who helped you all get here – the moms and dads, brothers, sisters, grandparents, cousins, friends and neighbors.”
In addition, she told graduates that the possibilities for them are endless for a brighter future as long as they never cease in their quest for making a difference.
“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.”
She concluded by telling the Class of 2016 that “I know you’ve got it in you. I can feel it. And, as you say here at Jackson State, the world better get ready because here you all come.”
Source: Jackson State University