The Caucus: Obama Urges Morehouse Graduates to ‘Keep Setting an Example’

President Obama delived the commencement speech at Morehouse College in Atlanta.Doug Mills/The New York Times President Obama delived the commencement speech at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

ATLANTA — President Obama came to Morehouse College, the alma mater of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on Sunday to tell graduates, 50 years after Dr. King’s landmark “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, that “laws, hearts and minds have been changed to the point where someone who looks like you can serve as president of the United States.”

Wearing an academic robe in maroon and black, Mr. Obama paid tribute to Morehouse as the place where Dr. King first read the writings of Gandhi and Thoreau, and absorbed the theory of civil disobedience.

The president tied Dr. King’s journey to his own, speaking in forthright and strikingly personal terms about his struggles as a young man with an absent father, a “heroic single mother,” supportive grandparents and the psychological burdens of being black in America.

“We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices,” Mr. Obama said. “I have to say, growing up, I made quite a few myself. Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down.”

“But one of the things you’ve learned over the last four years is that there’s no longer any room for excuses,” the president told the 500 or so graduates, who greeted him enthusiastically.

“Along with collective responsibilities, we have individual responsibilities,” Mr. Obama added. “There are some things, as black men, we can only do for ourselves.”

Mr. Obama exhorted the graduates to extend a hand to other black men, saying that his success depended less on his Ivy Leagues credentials than on his sense of empathy and obligation he felt as a black man to help his brothers.

“But for the grace of God, I might be in their shoes,” the president said. “I might have been in prison.”

Seniors sat in the driving rain as President Obama delivers the commencement speech.Doug Mills/The New York Times Seniors sat in the driving rain as President Obama delivers the commencement speech.

Reflecting on his turbulent childhood and his own family, Mr. Obama said, “I still wish I had a father who was not only present, but involved. And so my whole life, I’ve tried to be for Michelle and my girls what my father wasn’t for my mother and me. I want to break that cycle. I want to be a better father, a better husband and a better man.”

Mr. Obama urged the graduates to “keep setting an example for what it means to be a man.”

“Be the best husband to your wife, or boyfriend to your partner,” he said.

Even as he preached the need for responsibility, Mr. Obama celebrated the distinguished lineage of Morehouse, the country’s only historically black, all-male college. Its roots go back to after the Civil War, when 37 black men gathered to make up the first class.

The president dwelt on the legacy of Dr. King, a member of the Class of 1948, whom he described as an undersized 15-year-old nicknamed “Tweed” when he arrived.

“It was here that professors encouraged him to look past the world as it was and fight for the world as it should be,” Mr. Obama said in his address, which was delivered in the rain as thunder rolled overhead. “And it was here, at Morehouse, as Dr. King later wrote, where ‘I realized that nobody was afraid – not even of some bad weather.’ ”

Mr. Obama traveled to Atlanta with his chief of staff, Denis R. McDonough, who has instructed staff members in the West Wing to keep their focus on the president’s legislative agenda and devote no more than 10 percent of their time to the controversies that have developed over the last week over the attack on the United States diplomatic post in Benghazi on Sept. 11 and the Internal Revenue Service‘s treatment of conservative groups.

The president’s visit to Morehouse was laden with symbolism: in addition to the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s speech, it is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

But Mr. Obama’s visit came as Morehouse found itself enmeshed in a pair of controversies. The college hastily revamped the format of its baccalaureate service after one of the speakers, the Rev. Kevin R. Johnson, wrote an op-ed in The Philadelphia Tribune harshly criticizing what he said was Mr. Obama’s lack of advocacy on behalf of African-Americans.

Mr. Johnson, the pastor of a Philadelphia church who is an alumnus of the college, complained that he had been “disinvited” because of the article, in which he noted that Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both named more blacks to their cabinets than Mr. Obama had. (Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is the only African-American in the cabinet.)

In a letter to the college community, the president of Morehouse, John Silvanus Wilson Jr., insisted he had changed the format to include more speakers. “To my chagrin,” he wrote, “my decision has been wrongly construed as a decision to ‘disinvite’ this individual. He was not disinvited but rather declined to participate in the format.”

Separately, four students from Morehouse were charged with sexual assault earlier this month in the rape of two women from nearby Spelman College. Three of the four students are members of the Morehouse basketball team.

Lawyers for the students say the encounters, which occurred after an evening of drinking, were consensual. The college, declaring it has a “zero tolerance policy related to violence of any kind,” said it was working with the police and considering its own disciplinary measures.

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