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In Commencement Speech, Obama Advises Howard University Grads On Creating Change

President Obama addresses the 2016 graduating class of Howard University in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.
Susan Walsh
President Obama addresses the 2016 graduating class of Howard University in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.

Speaking to the graduating class of Washington, D.C.'s Howard University, President Obama emphasized that his election hasn't created a "post-racial society" despite improved race relations.

Stressing the need to keep pushing for change, he gave the students at the historically black university impassioned advice on how to "shape our collective future."

Chief among that advice: Vote, "not just some of the time but all of the time." He added: "When we don't vote we give away our power."

You can watch the full speech here:

He described the university as a "centerpiece of African-American intellectual life, and a central part of our larger American story."

Arguing that the U.S. — and the world — is a "better place" than when he graduated from college in the early 1980s, he said there is still work to be done, citing employment, achievement and justice gaps for African-Americans.

"Be confident in your heritage. Be confident in your blackness," he told the graduates. "There's no one way to be black. Take it from somebody who's seen both sides of the debate about whether I'm black enough."

Obama told the graduates to remember the ties that connect African-Americans:

"That is our particular awareness of injustice, and unfairness, and struggle. ... That means we cannot sleepwalk through life.


"We have cousins, and uncles, and brothers, and sisters, who we remember were just as smart and just as talented as we were but somehow got ground down by structures that were unfair and unjust, and that means we have to not only question the world as it is, and stand up for those African-Americans who haven't been so lucky."

That empathy should extend to "all people who are struggling," he said.

Finally, he advised the grads that creating change requires organization and strategy. That strategy has to include voting, Obama added:

"People try to make this political thing really complicated ... you know what? Just vote. It's math. If you have more votes than the other guy, you get to do what you want."

Moreover, he said change requires compromise and "listening to those with whom you disagree."

As The Washington Post reports, "The president was kicking off a series of three commencement addresses, which will continue at Rutgers University in New Jersey and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs." The newspaper adds: "His appearance at Howard, urging the graduates to embrace the future, came as he is becoming more reflective as his presidency winds down."

Check out NPR's rundown of great commencement speeches for two more from Obama, and many others.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.

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