In Virtual Speech To Black Graduates, Obama Says U.S. Lacks Leadership On Coronavirus

May 16, 2020
Originally published on May 17, 2020 10:53 am

Former President Barack Obama delivered a virtual commencement address on Saturday, urging the tens of thousands of graduates from historically black colleges and universities to "seize the initiative" amid what he described as a lack of leadership from leaders in the United States to the coronavirus pandemic.

"More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they're doing," Obama said in remarks that were streamed online. "A lot of them aren't even pretending to be in charge. If the world's gonna be better, it's going to be up to you."

Obama's remarks come as the virus has killed more than 88,000 Americans and crippled the nation's economy. He delivered them as part of "Show Me Your Walk HBCU Edition," a virtual commencement hosted Saturday by the comedian Kevin Hart. The event included a stream of prominent black athletes, politicians and entertainers — many of whom attended HBCUs themselves.

While Obama's remarks were billed as a sendoff for graduating seniors — forced by the pandemic to leave campuses across the country and unable to participate in more traditional commencement ceremonies — Obama also appeared to bring the graduates together around a set of shared values.

The former president made note of the disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on black communities. Black Americans account for a disproportionate number of coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S. There have also been stark racial disparities in the economic impact of the outbreak.

Addressing these disparities, Obama said that coronavirus "spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country."

He also made reference to the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old black man who was fatally shot in Georgia in February, saying there were disparities evident not just in public health, but "just as we see it when a black man goes for a jog, and some folks feel like they can stop and question and shoot him if he doesn't submit to their questioning."

Obama praised the key role that historically black colleges play in the black community, telling graduates that now more than ever, they have the tools they need to seize their power to make change. Obama called on the 2020 class to be "bold" and have a "vision that isn't clouded by cynicism or fear."

Taylor Harris, 22, who attended Hampton University, said she was glad to see Obama and others taking notice of HBCUs given their key role in educating a large population of low income and first-generation students.

"I feel like we don't get a lot of recognition — they kind of looked at as second tier compared to Ivy League schools or predominately white institutions," said Harris. "So I'm just glad that celebrities are taking the chance to embrace our young African-American graduates. There are so many statistics that we have overcome, just graduating for college."

Harris left Hampton's campus nine weeks ago, and went home to St. Louis, assuming she'd be back on campus in a matter of weeks.

"At first people were excited, it was like a little break," Harris said. "But as soon as I got back home and I knew that I couldn't return back to campus, now I'm living out of a suitcase."

Hampton University is planning on holding a commencement ceremony for graduating seniors in September. Harris said that's a long way in the future, but she hopes she gets the opportunity to walk across the stage in front of her family and friends, and professors that she said became like family too.

Obama's remarks on Saturday marked the first of three speeches he is scheduled to deliver to graduating students. On Saturday evening, the former president is slated to take part in a prime time special for high school graduates that will air on the major television networks. In June, Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama are also scheduled to speak at a commencement hosted by YouTube.

Over the course of his presidency, Obama gave in-person commencement addresses at three historically black colleges: Hampton University, Howard University and Morehouse College.

On Saturday, he said that graduates of such institutions are "inheritors of one of America's proudest traditions" and that "no generation has been better positioned to be warriors for justice and remake the world."

Donethe Cyprien, 22, graduated from Morgan State University in Baltimore on Saturday. Since Morgan State ended in-person classes, she's been with family in Montgomery County, Maryland.

"Honestly, it was sad," she said after participating in her virtual commencement. "Right now I'm supposed to be at school actually doing all of this. Instead, I'm watching my graduation in my bed and texting my friends."

Cyprien said virtual commencements are a nice gesture, but can't replicate what she and other members of the class of 2020 have lost.

"All those goodbyes, those hugs — all that was supposed to be happening in person."

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College seniors across the country are wrapping up the final weeks of their school year, but most will be missing out on one important rite of passage - putting on a cap and gown and walking across the stage for graduation. So many schools are turning online to celebrate their seniors.

One virtual commencement which took place earlier today was geared toward graduates of the country's historically black colleges and universities, HBCUs. It included remarks from former President Barack Obama. NPR's Juana Summers covers demographics and culture, and she's with us now to tell us more about it.

Juana, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Hey there. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Tell us about the virtual commencement.

SUMMERS: Yeah. This was an online event hosted by the actor Kevin Hart and sponsored by JP Morgan Chase. It's called Show Me Your Walk HBCU Edition. It brought together a ton of prominent black figures who are sending these students off with some advice and good wishes and some performances. We're talking about folks like the NBA's Chris Paul, Gary Clark Jr., California Senator Kamala Harris and, of course, former President Barack Obama.

MARTIN: Well, what did we hear from President Obama?

SUMMERS: Yeah, so this was interesting because this is the first time we've really heard from former President Obama publicly during this pandemic. And his remarks, which came at the very end of a two-hour event - he called on graduates to seize the initiative at a time when he says that the nation's leaders have fumbled their response to the coronavirus pandemic.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they're doing. A lot of them aren't even pretending to be in charge. If the world's going to get better, it's going to be up to you.

SUMMERS: He went on to make reference to the fact that the coronavirus has really put into the spotlight the underlying inequities and burdens that black communities in this country have had to deal with for generations - and not just in public health but across society.

We're going to hear more from President Obama soon, too. This is one of a couple of these virtual commencements that he's participating in. Later this evening, he's going to speak in a primetime special that's aimed towards the country's high school graduates. And in June, he and former first lady Michelle Obama are participating in another virtual commencement that's organized by YouTube.

MARTIN: Well, you know, obviously, the president is making a statement by giving his remarks here in this particular time to this particular group. I do want to notice that, you know, graduates all over the country are missing out on graduation activities. But I wonder if in part the president's making a statement that there's something different for historically black colleges and their students.

SUMMERS: Yeah. You know, I think that's exactly the point he's making. I mean, this is something that's been hard and stressful for all students, particularly those graduating this year into an uncertain economy and who literally are having many of them to move back in with their parents.

But HBCUs are different than a lot of schools out there. They educate, you know, a large population of low-income and first-generation students who these milestones are particularly significant for, and these campuses are just incredibly tight-knit places. I've talked to a lot of students, and they say that these are places that are like family for them. They're historic. They feel like they're part of a historic bond.

And I think it's worth noting, too, as you and I both note, these institutions are feeling the strain financially from coronavirus in a different way. HBCUs have for a long time struggled with less funding and smaller endowments than their predominantly white counterparts. So the financial challenges felt by schools across the country are exacerbated on these campuses.

MARTIN: Have you been able to get some feedback from the students? What are they saying about what they've been hearing at these speeches?

SUMMERS: Yeah, I have been talking to students all day. I spoke with one young woman, Taylor Harris, who is graduating from Hampton University in Virginia. Her classes were canceled nine weeks ago, so she moved back home to St. Louis, and she's trying to figure out what's next.

TAYLOR HARRIS: I feel like we don't get - HBCUs don't get a lot of recognition. They're kind of looked at as second-tier compared to Ivy League schools that are predominantly white institutions. So I'm just glad that celebrities are taking the chance to embrace our young African American graduates that have made a milestone because of so many statistics that we have overcome just graduating from college.

SUMMERS: Taylor told me that Hampton is planning to celebrate their graduates in September if they're able to do so during the pandemic. I also spoke to some other students. They said that they appreciate gestures like this one from former President Obama and these other celebrities who are offering up these virtual graduation events. But they also made the point that it's a little sad. There's no way to possibly replace what they've lost this year.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Juana Summers. Juana, thank you.

SUMMERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.