Michelle Obama urges class of 2020 to couple protesting with mobilizing, voting
Former first lady Michelle Obama called on 2020 graduates to couple their protests with organizing, mobilizing and voting in a commencement address on Sunday as widespread demonstrations against police brutality and racism continue following the death of George Floyd.
“You deserve this celebration. Congratulations,” she said during the start of the address, which was streamed on YouTube. “This is an important time of transition. In light of the current state of our country, I struggle to find the right words of wisdom for you today.”
“So I am here today to talk to you, not as the former first lady but as a real-life person, a mother, a mentor, a citizen concerned about your future and the future of our country because right now, all that superficial stuff of titles and positions, all of that has been stripped away,” she continued. “A lot of us are reckoning with the most basic essence of who we are.”
Over the past few months, Obama said the country’s “foundation has been shaken.”
“Not just by a pandemic that stole too many of our loved ones, upended our daily lives and sent tens of millions into unemployment but also by the rumbling of the age-old fault lines that our country was built on, the lines of race and power that are now once again so nakedly exposed for all of us to grapple with,” she said.
Her comments come roughly two weeks after the death of Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in Minneapolis on May 25 after a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, was seen kneeling on his neck during an arrest. In viral footage of the moment, Floyd could be heard telling the officer, “I can’t breathe” as Chauvin continued to kneel on his neck.
Footage of the arrest has sparked widespread protests across the nation and around the world in the weeks since. It also led to Chauvin’s arrest charges of second-degree murder after a Hennepin County medical examiner ruled Floyd’s death to be a homicide.
Obama remarked on the ongoing protests in her address to graduates on Sunday while also urging them to “speak out against cruelty, dishonesty, bigotry, all of it.”
“It’s up to you to march hand in hand with your allies, to stand peacefully with dignity and purpose on the front lines in the fight for justice,” she said.
But Obama also called on graduates to make sure they “couple every protest with plans and policies, with organizing and mobilizing and voting.”
“Graduates, anger is a powerful force. It can be a useful force, but left on its own, it will only corrode and destroy and sow chaos on the inside and out. But when anger is focused, when it’s channeled into something more, oh, that is the stuff that changes history,” she continued.
“Dr. King was angry. Sojourner Truth was angry. Lucretia Mott, Cesar Chavez, the folks at Stonewall, they were all angry. But those folks were also driven by compassion, by principle, by hope. And so they took advantage of whatever resources they had in their own time,” she added.
Toward the end of her remarks, the former first lady, whose organization When We All Vote works to boost voter participation across the U.S., also called on graduates to text “everybody you know to join you in exercising their constitutional right to protest” a link to register to vote.
“Graduates, this is how you can finish the work that the generations before you have started, by staying open and hopeful even in the tough times, by channeling that discomfort you feel into activism and a democracy that was designed to respond to those who vote,” she said.
“I have seen exactly who you are. I’ve seen your creativity and your talent and your resourcefulness. I’ve seen you speaking out to end gun violence and fight climate change,” Obama continued. “I’ve seen you gathering donations for those in need during this pandemic. I have seen you marching with peace and with purpose. And that is why, even in tough times like these, you continue to be what gives me hope.”
The former first lady delivered the address as part of a virtual commencement ceremony hosted by YouTube called “Dear Class of 2020.” The virtual event also featured appearances from other prominent figures, including Obama’s husband, former President Obama, Alicia Keys, Missy Elliott, Jennifer Lopez, Megan Thee Stallion and Taylor Swift.
The event is the latest in a string of similar virtual ceremonies that have included appearances from high-profile figures and celebrities in recent weeks after schools were closed across the country earlier this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.