Then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) speaks at Howard University in September 2007. (Michel du Cille/The Washington Post)

Then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) speaks at Howard University in September 2007. (Michel du Cille/The Washington Post)

Obama’s commencement speech at Howard this weekend comes at a crucial moment

May 10, 2016

By Colbert I. King Opinion writer
May 6, 2016
Originally appeared in The Washington Post


President Obama’s commencement address at Howard University on Saturday rounds out, at least for me, a nine-year journalistic odyssey that began with a photo taken with then-Sen. Barack Obama at a pre-Democratic presidential debate reception on Howard’s campus in June 2007. The years in between have been kind to the nation in ways unimaginable at the time of that forum. Because of our 44th president’s stewardship, millions of Americans have health-care coverage, job growth has been steady, the auto industry and the economy are on the upswing, our energy resources are stronger and, despite carping from the cheap seats, the country is in a better place in the world.

Yet today’s focus is where it belongs: graduation and the president’s speech. Because Howard University presidential visits have usually been momentous.

Lyndon Baines Johnson gave the keynote address at my commencement in June 1961. Anti-civil-rights violence had recently taken place in Montgomery and Birmingham, Ala.

Johnson, who was vice president at the time, denounced mob rule, telling more than 800 HU graduates that the national conscience and the Kennedy administration were on the side of morality, justice and right. But he also warned us about what was ahead, our newly minted degrees notwithstanding.

Racial cauldrons were boiling in the South. “All of you in the course of your lifetime,” Johnson said, “are going to know, if you have not already known, injustice and unfairness,” adding, “I am not saying this to you merely because you are mainly Negroes and graduating from a predominantly Negro university. All men must feel injustice and unfairness in varying degrees in the course of their lifetime.” But Johnson went on: “What really counts is whether we live in a system that seeks to perpetuate injustice and unfairness or a system which seeks to eliminate these evil sores from the body politic.” Scores of Howard graduates played major roles in treating and eliminating those evil sores.

Obama, at the time of my graduation, had two months left to go in his mother’s womb.

Two years later, the New Frontier, the kingdom of Camelot, died by gunfire on a Dallas street.

That didn’t prevent Johnson and Howard from meeting again.

As president, he returned to deliver the commencement address to the 1965 graduating class. The occasion was no less pivotal.

The backdrop was the Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March and a speech that Johnson delivered months earlier, in which he identified his administration with the civil rights movement. Titled “To Fulfill These Rights,” the president’s commencement speech called for a program to achieve economic justice beyond the freedoms won through the Voting Rights Act.

Said Johnson, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

With that, Johnson launched the largest domestic reform agenda since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Obama’s appearance at Howard’s 148th commencement comes at no less a crucial moment. The country has made enormous progress since Johnson’s speeches at the 93rd and 97th commencement exercises. But the hard truth is that this year’s graduates will enter an America that is politically fractured and polarized by forces once thought to be on the path to extinction — forces epitomized by Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee who ascended to leader of his party by playing racial politics and catering to bigotry against immigrants, Muslims, Hispanics, women, blacks and Jews.

Trump stops at nothing. Lying, degrading people with disabilities and appealing to violence and ignorance are all in his wheelhouse. “Demagogue of the greatest proportion” is the way Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) described him. Tragically, Americans by the millions are eating it up.

It could make for yet another momentous presidential visit when Obama, the nation’s first African American president, returns to a university of black firsts to confront — as I hope he will — this most divisive force and threat to a diverse and inclusive America.

My Howard classmate, retired educator Louis A. DeFreitas Sr., commented on Obama’s return to Howard and the school’s contribution to America’s growth as a diverse nation by sharing a list of Howard trailblazers to Obama’s presidency.

Before there was Nobel Peace Prize winner Obama, there was Howard’s former government department chairman and the first black Nobel winner, Ralph Bunche, and the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, Howard graduate and professor Toni Morrison.

Among other Howard public policy firsts are graduates:

●Edward Brooke, first black attorney general of Massachusetts and first black U.S. senator elected since Reconstruction.

●Thurgood Marshall, first black Supreme Court justice.

●L. Douglas Wilder, first black elected U.S. governor.

● David Dinkins, Walter Washington and Henry Marsh, first black mayors of New York, the District and Richmond, respectively.

●Benjamin O. Davis Sr., first black U.S. Army general.

● Patricia Roberts Harris, first black female ambassador.

● Mike Espy, first black member of Congress from Mississippi since Reconstruction.

● Gwendolyn Stewart King, first black Social Security commissioner and first black deputy assistant to the president (as well as, full disclosure, my wife).

There are many more Howard firsts, as there are other firsts in our diverse nation yet to come.

All of which is of little moment to the prospective Republican chieftain who would lead the nation in a race to the bottom where the bigots, sexists, homophobes and nativists dwell.

Which makes Saturday’s presidential commencement address at HU all the more, well, momentous.