President Barack Obama on Saturday made an impassioned call to Howard University graduates, urging them to get engaged in the political process, and cautioned that while social change can be slow, they should be willing to compromise with those who hold opposing views.
In his commencement address to graduates at the historically black college in Washington, D.C., Obama invoked civil rights legend Martin Luther King Jr., who met with former President Lyndon B. Johnson over the Voting Rights Act.
“Listen to those you disagree with, and be prepared to compromise. Democracy requires compromise, even when you’re 100 percent right,” Obama said. “You can be completely right, but you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you. If you think the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want.”
The president made similar remarks at a youth forum in London last month, where he criticized the Black Lives Matter movement, saying that activists should be willing to sit down and discuss their agendas with leaders rather than “yelling at them.” Obama lauded the movement for bringing attention to racially motivated police violence across the country, but said the harsh tone activists are using is troubling.
“You have to go through life with more than just a passion for change – you have to have strategy. Not just awareness, but action,” he said on Saturday. “Not just hashtags, but votes. Change requires more than righteous anger. To bring about structural change, lasting change, awareness is not enough. It requires changes in law, changes in customs.”
Obama also advised students to use peaceful means to make progressive changes. He said more than half of young black Americans have disenfranchised themselves by not participating in elections. He emphasized that going to the polls will help protect civil-rights advances that earlier generations sacrificed to make.
“It is absolutely true that 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, there are too still many barriers in this country to vote,” the president said. “There too many people trying to erect new barriers to voting. This is the only advanced democracy on earth that goes out of its way to make it difficult for people to vote, and there’s a reason for it, there’s a legacy to that. But even if we dismantle every barrier to vote, that alone does not change the fact that America has one of the lowest voting rates in the free world.”
The president told graduates to embrace the future and that profound changes lie ahead. Obama said they are better positioned than others who came before them, amid the dramatic technological and social changes the country has made since he graduated from Columbia University in 1983.
Still, he urged them not be complacent because “there’s still more work to do.”
“Harriet Tubman may be going on the 20 [dollar bill], but we still have a gender gap when a black woman working full-time is getting 66 percent of what a white man gets paid,” he said. “There’s a justice gap. Too many black boys and girls pass through a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails. This is one area where things have gotten worse.”
Obama said students could not choose a better time to “be young, gifted and black in America,” and he told them to “be confident in your blackness.”
“I tell you all of this because it’s important to know progress,” he said. “Because to deny how far we have come would do a disservice to the cause of justice.”