By Amie Parnes - 05/19/13 04:13 PM EDT
ATLANTA – President Obama on Sunday urged graduates of Morehouse College to use “the power of your example” to help others less fortunate.
Speaking at the historically black all-male college in Georgia’s capital, Obama struck a deeply personal tone, touching on race and the hardships that plagued so many of the graduates’ ancestors. And while he commended the students on their accomplishments he urged them to use their diplomas “for something larger than yourself.”
“There are some things, as black men, we can only do for ourselves,” Obama told about 500 graduates seated before him in a small quad on the school’s campus on a rainy day, as thunder rumbled in the distance. “There are some things, as Morehouse Men, that you are obliged to do for those still left behind.
As graduates, Obama said, “you now wield something even more powerful than the diploma you are about to collect…so what I ask of you today is the same thing I ask of every graduating class I address: use that power for something larger than yourself.”
For the second time in a week, Obama talked about his own experiences and “bad choices” growing up, acknowledging that sometimes “I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down.”
He spoke about being raised by a “heroic single mother” and grandparents “who made incredible sacrifices. But, at the same time, he said he longed for a father who “was not only present but involved.”
“And so my whole life, I’ve tried to be for [first lady] Michelle [Obama] and my girls what my father wasn’t for my mother and me,” he said. “I’ve tried to be a better husband, a better father, and a better man.”
Obama told the graduates that “there’s no longer any room for excuses.”
“We’ve got no time for excuses – not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven’t. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; that’s still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world, with a billion young people from China and India and Brazil entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven’t earned. And whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured – and overcame.
The president on Sunday received the honorary doctor of Laws before a crowd that included Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).
Before making the trip, Obama came under criticism from one prominent pastor for being a president “of everyone except black people.”
In a column last month, Rev. Kevin Johnson, of Philadelphia, railed against Obama for having appointed fewer African Americans to his cabinet than his predecessors.
“Indeed, if we objectively look at Obama’s presidency,” Johnson wrote. “African-Americans are in a worse position than they were before he became president.”
Reports suggested that Johnson had been disinvited from speaking at an earlier ceremony on the Morehouse campus after the critical op-ed was published
But when Obama appeared on the stage for the commencement on Sunday, there was no mention of the controversy, with the audience cheering and hollering in support as he took the dais.
And in his speech, Obama sought to send a message that he has fought for all Americans as president.
“My job, as President, is to advocate for policies that generate more opportunity for everybody – policies that strengthen the middle class and give more people the chance to climb their way into the middle class,” Obama said. “Policies that create more good jobs and alleviate poverty, that educate more children, that give more families the security of health care, and protect more of our children from the horrors of gun violence.
“These are matters of public policy, and it is important for all of us, black, white and brown, to advocate for an America where everybody has a fair shot in life,” Obama added.
Obama’s speech comes on the heels of a trying week for the White House, in which administration officials were forced to contend with a trio of controversies at once.
Obama sought and accepted the resignation of the acting IRS director Steven Miller, after the agency admitted to targeting conservative political groups applying for tax-exempt status. And the administration faced additional controversies over the Justice Department’s seizure of AP journalists’ phone records and congressional probes into the White House handling of the Benghazi Consulate attack.
Obama is the first sitting president to address graduates in Georgia at a spring commencement. Franklin Delano Roosevelt last spoke at the summer commencement at the University of Georgia in 1938.
Obama last visited Georgia in February when he pushed pre-school programs.
First lady Michelle Obama has also been making the graduation rounds in recent days speaking at Bowie State University and Eastern Kentucky University.
At the commencement on Sunday, Obama began his speech by having some fun with the graduates.
“Some of you are graduating summa cum laude, some of you are graduating magna cum laude, and I know some of you are just graduating, ‘thank you Lordy,’ he joked.
Obama will speak at a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee event later Sunday afternoon, before returning to the White House this evening.