Obama tells graduating HBCU students to step up because leaders 'not even pretending to be in charge'

His remarks were made during a virtual commencement speech.

May 16, 2020, 5:25 PM

Former President Barack Obama urged graduating students from historically black colleges and universities to take charge as they step into the real world because, he said, if they want to see change, it won't come from current leaders.

Obama said the novel coronavirus pandemic has "more than anything ... fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they're doing."

"A lot of them aren't even pretending to be in charge," he added in his virtual commencement speech Saturday to HBCU students. The U.S. currently has by far the most confirmed cases and deaths due to the virus in the world. Polls have shown that a numeric high of 57% of Americans disapproved of how President Donald Trump has handled the pandemic.

Obama said that the virus also "just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country.”

Specifically, Obama mentioned the disproportionate rate at which black people are dying from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, and the recent killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was on a jog and encountered by Gregory and Travis McMichael, both white and armed with guns.

Obama did not mention Arbery by name, but said the injustices of the world were seen "when a black man goes for a jog, and some folks feel like they can stop and question and shoot him if he doesn’t submit to their questioning."

PHOTO: Former President Barack Obama speaks to young leaders from across Europe, on April 06, 2019, in Berlin.
Former President Barack Obama speaks to young leaders from across Europe, on April 06, 2019, in Berlin.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images, File

He called on the graduates to be bold in their vision of the world.

"If the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you," Obama said, later adding, "No generation has been better positioned to be warriors of justice and remake the world."

His speech was part of a larger virtual event, titled "Show Me Your Walk, HBCU Edition." It was a two-hour virtual HBCU commencement program presented by Chase in partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the United Negro College Fund, the National Association for Equal Opportunity, the NBA, Paul Quinn College, Howard University and JPMorgan Chase's Advancing Black Pathways Initiative, according to the former president's office.

Obama applauded the students for choosing to attend an HBCU. He said that while they could have chosen any school in the country, they chose an HBCU to help them "sow seeds of change" and follow in the footsteps of those who "shook the system to its core," such as Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Toni Morrison and Spike Lee.

He offered the class of 2020 three pieces of advice: use your voice in real communities at a grassroots level and not only online, work with allies and be active in leadership.

"So many of us believe in you," Obama said. "I'm so proud of you."

Obama will also address the high school seniors of 2020 in a virtual speech at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday broadcast on ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox.

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