First lady Michelle Obama assumed the roles of history professor, civil rights firebrand and fierce defender of her husband’s legacy Saturday as she urged Jackson State University graduates to “devote your life to finding ways to help others.”
In a spirited and often emotional address, Obama repeatedly referred to Mississippi’s history of racial oppression and its legislature’s continued resistance to progress, but she called upon the graduates to confront social injustice “with dignity, integrity and excellence.”
Obama opened with a bit of history about Jackson’s Veterans Memorial Stadium, where an estimated crowd of 35,000 had gathered to hear her. “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 these gates.”
She continued, “Back in 1962, during an Ole Miss football game, the stadium became the site of what was essentially a pro-Jim Crow rally with fans waving Confederate flags and singing a song called ‘Never, No Never’ to protest the admission of an African-American student to their university.”
She explained that the incident “was just one small moment in a struggle for civil rights that inflamed the country but burned hottest right here in Mississippi,” adding that the murders of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers and the Freedom Riders were more significant.
She then turned to the progress that has occurred ― the fact that, after much resistance, two Black football teams, Grambling and Jackson states, played in the stadium in 1967, opening it up to integration. She also noted that Jackson State and then-coach Rod Paige were instrumental in that change. Paige later became the first African-American U.S. Secretary of Education.
“We know that there will always be challenges and obstacles, but we also know that what we’re dealing with today is nothing compared to the violence, hatred and discrimination that folks faced decades ago,” she said.
“The question is how are you going to respond. … Are you going to take a deep breath, straighten your shoulders, lift up your head and do what Barack Obama always says, ‘When they go low, I go high.’ Excellence is the most powerful answer you can give to the doubters and the haters.”
Obama praised the university, which began as a Baptist seminary with just 20 students, for rising to its current status as one of the nation’s largest and finest historically Black universities and for the leadership of its current president, Dr. Carolyn Meyers.
She recited some of the progressive changes President Obama has championed during his seven years in the White House ― 14 million new jobs created, the unemployment rate cut in half, high school graduation rates the highest they have ever been, 20 million more people with health insurance, “and people in this country are finally free to marry the person they love.”
She also spoke of specific positive changes for young people: more African-Americans are graduating from college, taking positions of leadership and reporting greater optimism about the future.
But Obama returned to the struggles of the past and the present, saying, “We know the shadows of the past have not completely disappeared. Her voice quivering with emotion, the first lady mentioned some of the personal attacks waged against the president ― “charges that he doesn’t love our country, the times he was called a liar in front of a joint session of Congress, the nonstop questions about his birth certificate and his belief in God.”
But, she said, “Barack always rises above the fray.”
She also said it’s a sign of progress that “the vast majority of Americans in all corners of the country vehemently disagree with this hateful language. It’s remarkable progress that we’re having these conversations, not just in Black communities but in all communities.”
Obama took a few moments to chide the young people in the state for the poor turnout among young voters. She said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be very concerned that, after so many civil rights activists gave their lives fighting for the right to vote, fewer than 1 in 5 young people voted in the 2014 mid-term elections.
Nearing the end of her address, the first lady’s strongest remarks, which elicited continuous applause, were aimed squarely at the state’s recently passed religious freedom act. “We see it right here in Mississippi. Just two weeks ago how swiftly progress can hurdle backward, how easy it is to single out a small group and marginalize them because of who they are or who they love,” she said.
“We’ve got to stand side by side with all our neighbors: straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, Muslim, Jew, Christian, Hindu, immigrant, Native American — because the march for civil rights isn’t just about African-Americans; it’s about all Americans.”
Simone Taylor, a speech communications graduate from Chicago who was cheered by 58 family members and friends who chartered a bus to the ceremony, said she was especially moved by the first lady’s remarks. “She was very true to herself and true to us as Black people. She told us to keep pushing the way Barack Obama just keeps pushing, and I definitely think that what she said about voting was very important. We needed to hear that because we are the future.”