Commentary: In Speaking at Morehouse, Obama Was at His Most Poignant

In speaking to the class of 2013 at the historic Atlanta campus, the president offered a compelling message in a style that was highly personal.

Posted: 05/20/2013 01:46 PM EDT
Commentary: In Speaking at Morehouse, Obama Was at His Most Poignant

In his speech on Sunday at the commencement exercises at Morehouse College, President Obama presented a far more personal and passionate perspective of manhood and of his own views on how African-American men should model themselves.

For those who have questioned Obama’s sense of race consciousness, the speech at the historic Atlanta college was nothing short of spellbinding in shattering such questions. In his cadence, in the nuances and references in his speech, Obama made clear that he was operating squarely within his comfort zone. It was as though he was somehow free in the beginning of his second term to channel the community organizer of days gone by.

It wasn’t just the references to Benjamin E. Mays, the renowned, longtime president of the college, or Martin Luther King Jr., whom Obama recalled rose from not being the “coolest” kid at Morehouse to international importance. It also was his references to the challenge of long lines and red tape that are a hallmark of registration at historically Black colleges.

And yet, it offered a heartfelt and inspiring homage to Dr. King and to Morehouse itself.

“Here, under the tutelage of men like Dr. Mays, young Martin learned to be unafraid,” Obama said. “He, in turn, taught others to be unafraid. And over the last 50 years, thanks to the moral force of Dr. King and a Moses generation that overcame their fear, and cynicism, and despair, barriers have come tumbling down, new doors of opportunity have swung open; laws, hearts, and minds have been changed to the point where someone who looks like you can serve as President of the United States.”

Obama was most enthralling when discussing his own family, how he was raised by a single mother and how his father was largely absent.

“I still wish I had a father who was not only present, but involved,” the president said. “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’ve tried to be a better husband, a better father, and a better man.”

It was an Obama who has clearly become comfortable with himself, his history and his philosophies of life. He advised the graduates to be dedicated to their families, no matter what form those family structures took, emphasizing the worth of families headed by same-sex couples.

It is dedication to and responsibility to family, Obama said, that provides the greatest fulfillment in life.

“I know that when I’m on my deathbed someday, I won’t be thinking about any particular legislation I passed, or policy I promoted,” Obama said. “I won’t be thinking about the speech I gave, or the Nobel Prize I received. I’ll be thinking about a walk I took with my daughters. A lazy afternoon with my wife. Whether I did right by all of them.”

It was also a cry for African-American men to take responsibility for themselves. “There are some things, as black men, we can only do for ourselves,” he said.

It was Obama with mesmerizing poignancy, highly transparent in a manner that made his remarks utterly compelling and forceful. It displayed with stark clarity why a man who has been rocked for a week by criticism over his administration’s handling Benghazi, the Associated Press and the Internal Revenue Service would see his poll standing rise amid crises.

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(Photo: Jason Reed/ Landov)

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