Break the cycle of fatherlessness, set high standards for yourself, serve those in need, and stop using racism as an excuse for lack of excellence, President Barack Obama told the graduates of Morehouse College, an all-black male college in Atlanta, Ga.
The tradition at Morehouse, Obama said in his Sunday commencement address, is not just to produce smart graduates, but men of strong character.
He began with a quote from former Morehouse President Benjamin Mays: "It will not be sufficient for Morehouse College, for any college, for that matter, to produce clever graduates … but rather honest men, men who can be trusted in public and private life – men who are sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings, and the injustices of society and who are willing to accept responsibility for correcting [those] ills."
Obama also utilized the example of Morehouse College graduate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "It was here that professors encouraged [King] to look past the world as it was and fight for the world as it should be. And it was here, at Morehouse, as Dr. King later wrote, where 'I realized that nobody … was afraid.'"
Obama reminded his audience that their predecessors endured many hardships during the era of segregation: "For black men in the '40s and the '50s, the threat of violence, the constant humiliations, large and small, the uncertainty that you could support a family, the gnawing doubts born of the Jim Crow culture that told you every day that somehow you were inferior, the temptation to shrink from the world, to accept your place, to avoid risks, to be afraid – that temptation was necessarily strong."
This generation of graduates, by contrast, has opportunities to achieve great success due to technological advances and an improving job market.
"Your generation is uniquely poised for success unlike any generation of African Americans that came before it," he said.
There are others, particularly African Americans, though, who have not had the same opportunities. Obama encouraged the graduates to be role models for those in communities suffering from lack of jobs, low wages, poor schools and violence.
"Use that power for something larger than yourself," he said.
Obama said he understands the need and desire to make money, adding, "but I will say it betrays a poverty of ambition if all you think about is what goods you can buy instead of what good you can do."
In setting an example for others, Obama encouraged them to not use racism as an excuse for their failings.
"Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing. But one of the things that all of you have learned over the last four years is there's no longer any room for excuses," he said.
"We've got no time for excuses," he added. "Not because the bitter legacy of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they have not. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; we know those are still out there. It's just that in today's hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world, with millions of young people from China and India and Brazil – many of whom started with a whole lot less than all of you did – all of them entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned."
While they have endured hardships, those hardships were not nearly as difficult as their predecessors' hardships, Obama reminded.
"Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you've gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured – and they overcame them. And if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too."
Obama also encouraged them to be "the best father you can be to your children, because nothing is more important," and spoke about the personal difficulties he had because his father was not around for him.
"I was raised by a heroic single mom, wonderful grandparents – made incredible sacrifices for me. ... But I sure wish I had had a father who was not only present, but involved. Didn't know my dad. And so my whole life, I've tried to be for Michelle and my girls what my father was not for my mother and me. I want to break that cycle where a father is not at home, where a father is not helping to raise that son or daughter. I want to be a better father, a better husband, a better man. ... Everything else is unfulfilled if we fail at family, if we fail at that responsibility."
Use the experience of discrimination to find empathy for others, he said, adding that Hispanics, gays, Muslims and women also face discrimination. "Hispanic Americans know that feeling when somebody asks them where they come from or tell them to go back. Gay and lesbian Americans feel it when a stranger passes judgment on their parenting skills or the love that they share. Muslim Americans feel it when they're stared at with suspicion because of their faith. Any woman who knows the injustice of earning less pay for doing the same work – she knows what it's like to be on the outside looking in.
"So your experiences give you special insight that today's leaders need. If you tap into that experience, it should endow you with empathy – the understanding of what it's like to walk in somebody else's shoes, to see through their eyes."
Obama ended the speech where he began, reminding the graduates of the legacy of previous graduates, and encouraged them "to recognize the burdens you carry with you, but to resist the temptation to use them as excuses. To transform the way we think about manhood, and set higher standards for ourselves and for others. To be successful, but also to understand that each of us has responsibilities not just to ourselves, but to one another and to future generations. Men who refuse to be afraid. Men who refuse to be afraid."