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Obama at Hampton: Education can "fortify our nation"

Rosalind Helderman

In a Commencement address at Virginia's Hampton University this morning, President Obama spoke about the power of education--a popular topic for the occasion. Obama's speech addressed education's role not just in providing individual opportunity or improving the nation's competitiveness around the globe, but also in security the American promise of equality.

He paid tribute to civil rights leader Dorothy Height, as well as escaped slaves who gathered for classes beneath an oak tree in 1861, the founders of the university.

This was Obama's first commencement speech to a historically black university--a huge honor for Hampton which has not hosted a president since 1991. He addressed the achievement gap between white and black Americans and said education is the way to close it.

Read the whole speech, as prepared for delivery, after the jump. Obama did make some tweak from this version distributed ahead of time as he gave the speech live. For instance, he added a greeting for Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) at the top--McDonnell announced late Saturday that he would attend the speech of the Democratic president.

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Remarks of President Barack Obama--As Prepared for Delivery
Hampton University Commencement
May 9, 2010
Hampton, Virginia

Good morning, Happy Mother's Day to all the moms here today, and thank you for inviting me to share this special occasion with the Hampton community. Before we get started, I just want to say, I'm excited the Battle of the Real H.U. will be taking place in Washington this year. You all know I'm not going to pick sides. But it's been, what, 13 years since the Pirates lost. As one Hampton alum on my staff put it, the last time Howard beat Hampton, The Fugees were still together.

Let me also say a word to President Harvey, a president who bleeds Hampton blue. In a single generation, Hampton has transformed from a small black college into a world-class research institution. That transformation has come through the efforts of many people, but it has come through President Harvey's efforts, in particular, and I want to commend him for his leadership.

I also want to recognize the Board of Trustees, faculty, alums, family, and friends with us today. And most importantly, I want to congratulate all of you, the Class of 2010 - I take it none of you walked across Ogden Circle.

We meet here today, as graduating classes have met for generations, not far from where it all began, near that old oak tree off Emancipation Drive. I know my University 101. There, beneath its branches, by what was then a Union garrison, about twenty students gathered on September 17, 1861. Taught by a free citizen, in defiance of Virginia law, the students were escaped slaves from nearby plantations, who had fled to the fort seeking asylum.

After the war's end, a retired Union general sought to enshrine that legacy of learning. With collections from church groups, Civil War veterans, and a choir that toured Europe, Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute was founded here, by the Chesapeake - a home by the sea.

That story is no doubt familiar to many of you. But it is worth reflecting on why it happened; why so many people went to such trouble to found Hampton and all our Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The founders of these institutions knew, of course, that inequality would persist long into the future. They recognized that barriers in our laws, and in our hearts, wouldn't vanish overnight.

But they also recognized a larger truth; a distinctly American truth. They recognized that with the right education, those barriers might be overcome and our God-given potential might be fulfilled. They recognized, as Frederick Douglass once put it, that "education...means emancipation." They recognized that education is how America and its people might fulfill our promise. That recognition, that truth - that an education can fortify us to rise above any barriers, to meet any tests - is reflected, again and again, throughout our history.

In the midst of civil war, we set aside land grants for schools like Hampton to teach farmers and factory-workers the skills of an industrializing nation. At the close of World War II, we made it possible for returning GIs to attend college, building and broadening our great middle class. At the Cold War's dawn, we set up Area Studies Centers on our campuses to prepare graduates to understand and address the global threats of a nuclear age.

Education, then, is what has always allowed us to meet the challenges of a changing world. And that has never been more true than it is today. You're graduating in a time of great difficulty for America and the world. You're entering the job market, in an era of heightened international competition, with an economy that's still rebounding from the worst crisis since the Great Depression. You're accepting your degrees as America wages two wars - wars that many in your generation have been fighting.

Meanwhile, you're coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don't rank all that high on the truth meter. With iPods and iPads; Xboxes and PlayStations; information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment. All of this is not only putting new pressures on you; it is putting new pressures on our country and on our democracy.

It's a period of breathtaking change, like few others in our history. We can't stop these changes, but we can adapt to them. And education is what can allow us to do so. It can fortify you, as it did earlier generations, to meet the tests of your own time.

First and foremost, your education can fortify you against the uncertainties of a 21st century economy. In the 19th century, folks could get by with a few basic skills, whether they learned them in a school like Hampton, or picked them up along the way. For much of the 20th century, a high school diploma was a ticket to a solid middle class life. That is no longer the case.

Jobs today often require at least a bachelor's degree, and that degree is even more important in tough times like these. In fact, the unemployment rate for folks who've never gone to college is over twice as high as it is for folks with a college degree or more.

The good news is, all of you are ahead of the curve. All those checks you wrote to Hampton will pay off. You are in a strong position to outcompete workers around the world. But I don't have to tell you that too many folks back home aren't as well prepared. By any number of different yardsticks, African Americans are being outperformed by their white classmates, and so are Hispanic Americans. And students in well-off areas are outperforming students in poorer rural or urban communities, no matter what color their skin.

Globally, it's not even close. In 8th grade science and math, for example, American students are ranked about 10th overall compared to top-performing countries. African Americans, however, are ranked behind more than twenty nations, lower than nearly every other developed country.

All of us have a responsibility, as Americans, to change this; to offer every child in this country an education that will make them competitive in our knowledge economy. But all of you have a separate responsibility, as well. To be role models for your brothers and sisters. To be mentors in your communities. And, when the time comes, to pass that sense of an education's value down to your children. To pass down that sense of personal responsibility and self-respect. To pass down the work ethic that made it possible for you to be here today.

So, allowing you to compete in the global economy is the first way your education can prepare you. But it can also prepare you as citizens. With so many voices clamoring for attention on blogs, on cable, on talk radio, it can be difficult, at times, to sift through it all; to know what to believe; to figure out who's telling the truth and who's not. Let's face it, even some of the craziest claims can quickly gain traction. I've had some experience with that myself.

Fortunately, you'll be well positioned to navigate this terrain. Your education has honed your research abilities, sharpened your analytical powers, and given you a context for understanding the world. Those skills will come in handy.

But the goal was always to teach you something more. Over the past four years, you've argued both sides of a debate. You've read novels and histories that take different cuts at life. You've discovered interests you didn't know you had, and made friends who didn't grow up the same way you did. And you've tried things you'd never done before, including some things I'm sure you wish you hadn't.

All of it, I hope, has had the effect of opening your minds; of helping you understand what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes. But now that your minds have been opened, it's up to you to keep them that way. And it will be up to you to open minds that remain closed. That, after all, is the elemental test of any democracy: whether people with differing points of view can learn from each other, work with each other, and find a way forward together.

I'd also add one further observation. Just as your education can fortify you, it can also fortify our nation, as a whole. More and more, America's economic preeminence, our ability to outcompete other countries, will be shaped not just in our boardrooms and on our factory floors, but in our classrooms, our schools, and at universities like Hampton; by how well all of us, and especially us parents, educate our sons and daughters.

What's at stake is more than our ability to outcompete other nations. It's our ability to make democracy work in our own nation. Years after he left office, decades after he penned the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson sat down, a few hours' drive from here, in Monticello, to write a letter to a longtime legislator, urging him to do more on education. Jefferson gave one principal reason - the one, perhaps, he found most compelling. "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free," he wrote, "it expects what never was and never will be."

What Jefferson recognized, like the rest of that gifted generation, was that in the long run, their improbable experiment - America - wouldn't work if its citizens were uninformed, if its citizens were apathetic, if its citizens checked out, and left democracy to those who didn't have their best interests at heart. It could only work if each of us stayed informed and engaged; if we held our government accountable; if we fulfilled the obligations of citizenship.

The success of their experiment, they understood, depended on the participation of its people - the participation of Americans like all of you. The participation of all those who've ever sought to perfect our union. Americans like Dorothy Height.

As you probably know, Dr. Height passed away the other week at the age of 98. Having been on the firing line for every fight from lynching to desegregation to the battle for health care reform, she lived a singular life. But she started out just like you, understanding that to make something of herself, she needed a college degree.

So, she applied to Barnard - and got in. Only, when she showed up, they discovered she wasn't white like they'd thought. You see, their two slots for African Americans had already been filled. But Dr. Height was not discouraged. She was not deterred. She stood up, straight-backed, and with Barnard's acceptance letter in hand, marched down to NYU, where she was admitted right away.

Think about that for a moment. A woman, a black woman, in 1929, refusing to be denied her dream of a college degree. Refusing to be denied her rights. Her dignity. Her piece of America's promise. Refusing to let any barriers of injustice or inequality stand in her way. That refusal to accept a lesser fate; that insistence on a better life is, ultimately, the secret of America's success.

So, yes, an education can fortify us to meet the tests of our economy, the tests of citizenship, and the tests of our time. But what makes us American is something that can't be taught - a stubborn insistence on pursuing a dream.

The same insistence that led a band of patriots to overthrow an empire. That fired the passions of union troops to free the slaves and union veterans to found schools like Hampton. That led foot-soldiers the same age as you to brave fire-hoses on the streets of Birmingham and billy clubs on a bridge in Selma. That led generation after generation of Americans to toil away, quietly, without complaint, in the hopes of a better life for their children and grandchildren.

That is what has makes us who we are. A dream of brighter days ahead, a faith in things unseen, a belief that here, in this country, we're the authors of our own destinies. And it now falls to you, the Class of 2010, to write the next great chapter in America's story; to meet the tests of your own time; and to take up the ongoing work of fulfilling our founding promise. Thank you, God Bless You, and may God Bless the United States of America.


By Rosalind Helderman  |  May 9, 2010; 9:44 AM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama , Robert F. McDonnell , Rosalind Helderman  | Tags: Barack Obama, Commencement speech, Dorothy Height, Hampton University, Historically black colleges and universities, Virginia  
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Comments

what if we had an all white university and a president made a special mention of that?
why are you people still promulgating the separation of black and white? so you can make money and keep your scam going????
should we have a white tv station, a white miss america??
stop the insanity
this way you will never get rid of racism, ist that what you want??Z?

Posted by: pferd | May 9, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

This must be one of the racist universities racist Obama is giving billions to for nothing.

Posted by: Cryos | May 9, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

What a joke. This President is the antithesis of free speech, especially free political speech.

Had George Bush said anything close to this, the lefty press would have been screaming about him trying to control freedom of expression. Now, we have a lefty President explaining to us why ordinary people should be prohibited from expressing their opinions because, after all, we're not worthy, some words are dangerous, and blah, blah, blah.

Since the President is a lawyer, and word has it, he studied Constitutional Law at Harvard, perhaps he should read some of the Supreme Court opinions from the 1960s and beyond, where we were all being told that every kind of vile, lefty, lunatic, seditious, nasty, anti-American, anti-white, racist, offensive, anti-religious, speech deserved the "highest form of protection." Even the worst smut and pornography was protected as somehow being related to "expression."

Now that the lefties think THEY'RE calling the shots, they want to to "control" the media -- in the exact same manner their idiot forefathers claimed was an abuse of human rights way back then.

How typical of these loser hypocrites. Can't wait until November, when this idiot and his moron cronies in Congress meets their real Waterloo.

What's next, Barack? Reichstag fire? Martial law?

Posted by: John1960 | May 9, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

What a joke. This President is the antithesis of free speech, especially free political speech.

Had George Bush said anything close to this, the lefty press would have been screaming about him trying to control freedom of expression. Now, we have a lefty President explaining to us why ordinary people should be prohibited from expressing their opinions because, after all, we're not worthy, some words are dangerous, and blah, blah, blah.

Since the President is a lawyer, and word has it, he studied Constitutional Law at Harvard, perhaps he should read some of the Supreme Court opinions from the 1960s and beyond, where we were all being told that every kind of vile, lefty, lunatic, seditious, nasty, anti-American, anti-white, racist, offensive, anti-religious, speech deserved the "highest form of protection." Even the worst smut and pornography was protected as somehow being related to "expression."

Now that the lefties think THEY'RE calling the shots, they want to to "control" the media -- in the exact same manner their idiot forefathers claimed was an abuse of human rights way back then.

How typical of these loser hypocrites. Can't wait until November, when this idiot and his moron cronies in Congress meets their real Waterloo.

What's next, Barack? Reichstag fire? Martial law?

Posted by: John1960 | May 9, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

His presence in Hampton Roads wasn't worth the inconveniences the residents of this area had to endure.

Posted by: PittAlum | May 9, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

What a wonderful, beautiful, and timely commencement address. Once again, this president has demonstrated that in so very many ways, he is sui generis. He soars above the "lowlifes" and "sewer rats and snakes" who, in their immaturity and ignorance, would have us believe nonwhite people have no right to exist; that nonwhite people do not, nor do they deserve, to have a seat at the table of humanity; that nonwhite people should not be exposed to thought-provoking ideas and ideals, too! Yes, I do, in fact, know the difference between ideas and ideals!!! How refreshing to have a President of the United States who understands the realities of the human condition; who understands that too many, though no all, white people have benefitted from the unearned privilege of white skin; who understands that a large part of America's greatness was achieved at the expense of land that was simply, outright taken from native Americans, while they were forced to walk to reservations in Oklahoma and Nebraska, among others; who understands that after many white Americans stole native Americans' land, they went on to import, dehumanize and enslave Africans, who they worked for free, for over 300 years; And, most importantly, in today's global civilization, who recognizes and understands the undeniable fact that most human beings on the planet Earth are NOT white! People of color have never, ever been a minority on this planet. Yet, many Europeans have attempted to brainwash themselves and others to believe otherwise. Thank God for Barack Obama. Thank God for his understanding and for his fortitude. There have been far, far too many commencement addresses by white American presidents to white graduates, at white universities, where nonwhite Americans were not welcome anywhere, except in the most degrading positions and circumstances. How dare anyone attempt to try to denigrate and impugn the character of the greatest leader this nation has ever, ever produced! Have a nice mother's day!

Posted by: rle946 | May 9, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

rle946:

Spoken like a true racist. Yes, only you and The One know how to transcend race -- by calling race into question all the time.

Yep.

Posted by: John1960 | May 9, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

I watched this on TV and the behavior of most of the students sitting behind the President was appalling. More like a junior high than a college. Apparently they weren't too impressed with Obama. Then again, who would be?

Posted by: Yankeesfan1 | May 9, 2010 8:46 PM | Report abuse

For the first posting person who wrote "what if we had an all white university and a president made a special mention of that?"..... what you are apparently ignorant and/or are oblivious to are: 1) Historically black colleges and universities (HBCU's) have never had a policy of exclusion of whites or other so-called races... and more importantly, their emerged exactly because of white exclusion and segregation(which did not end in the South until when?) ...; and 2) Today, very few, if any, HBCUs are exclusively black. Increasingly there are white (and other) "minorities" in these schools. Whites have historically chosen to exclude themselves from attending these institutions, for the most part, but not exclusively. These schools have a right to exist, have rich traditions, and have been the foundation for the emergence of the black middle and affluent classes. So you are wrong... and misguided with a "turned inside out" interpretation of historical reality. It is absolutely great that Obama spoke at Hampton U. What do you really know about Hampton U. anyway?

Posted by: saovid | May 9, 2010 9:56 PM | Report abuse

As a conservative, I am embarrassed and applaud by the vitriol of hate and contempt I read here. No person would, by any stretch of the imagination, conclude anything other than racial animosity that drives this.

The Republican Party made this mistake in the 70’s with their southern white strategy that galvanized the African-American community to the Democrat Party and will now do the same for the Hispanic community.

So, in summary, we MAY do well this 2010 but will diminish in the years to come. Women, people of color, LGBT, and poor will cleave to the Democrat Party while Republicans remain white, old, either poor rural or rich, urban.

Posted by: mjcc1987 | May 10, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

Roz, concerning those "escaped slaves who gathered for classes beneath an oak tree in 1861, the founders of the university," the president also mentioned that this happened near what "was then a Union garrison" -- as, in fact, it still is -- and that these formerly enslaved Americans "had fled to the fort seeking asylum." What he did not do -- as the Post almost never does -- is mention that fort's actual name, Fort Monroe. The Army leaves Fort Monroe next year. It's now an endangered national treasure that one official of the National Trust for Historic Preservation has ranked with Monticello and Mount Vernon. (You can see him say so in the moving 27-minute film about the stakes at Fort Monroe that the Norfolk PBS station created in 2007 and placed online at http://wmstreaming.whro.org/whro/ftmonroe/ftmonroe.asf .) You can also see how what happened at Fort Monroe could have led to the founding of Hampton University. Fort Monroe, on land where the first captive Africans first arrived in 1619 en route to Jamestown, is also the place where, shortly after Fort Sumter, American slavery began to crumble, and where the Civil War became a struggle for freedom. Here in Tidewater, almost entirely unobserved by the Post, some of us are working hard to save Fort Monroe from ruinous and financially unnecessary overdevelopment. We advocate a self-sustaining, innovatively structured national park akin to the one at San Francisco's Presidio. It's a news story, and we remain baffled from month to month and year to year why the Post ignores it -- same as we were disappointed yesterday that the president brushed across it, but didn't convey any of it. Thanks for the chance to comment. (For more on this aspect of the president's Hampton speech, please see the May 6 posting on the Virginia Tomorrow blog.) Steve Corneliussen, Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park (CFMNP.org)

Posted by: StevenTCorneliussen | May 10, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

"Meanwhile, you're coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don't rank all that high on the truth meter. With iPods and iPads; Xboxes and PlayStations; information becomes a distraction..."

Ok, so my X-Box is giving me bad news information and my Playstation is giving me biased and untruthful news now? How exactly is this happening.

I guess I shouldn't be too surprised, Biden usually sounds drunk and incoherent without a common thread to his rambling...

Oh... this was President Obama? Was he drunk?

Posted by: gekkobear1 | May 10, 2010 3:01 PM | Report abuse

"As a conservative... Posted by: mjcc1987"

BWAHAHAHAHAHA Oh, you were serious?

Well as a Liberal I often need to attack Democrats, liberals, and stereotype liberals in every way possible while in no way giving them even a hint of credence or defense. Oddly i never make a Liberal position, statement, or attack anyone other than Liberals; but I am a true-blue liberal yessirree.

You buy that? So why would anyone think you were a Conservative? MOBY yes, but Conservative? Go find someone dumb enough to buy it.

Posted by: gekkobear1 | May 10, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse

gekkobear1
Here is the full quote: >>>Meanwhile, you're coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don't rank all that high on the truth meter. With iPods and iPads; Xboxes and PlayStations; information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment.<<< First you show that you would benefit immensely from attending a University and graduating as did those students. Show valid reasons to discredit his comment; show how those items are not distractions. The iPad is still a fancy gadget which offers nothing that you cannot get on personal computer. Xbox, Playstation and iPod are entertainment gadgets! You need to take a lesson in understanding English. This "24/7 media environment" is where you can get "bad news information... biased and untruthful news". Idiot!

Posted by: traffikator | May 10, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

pferd,Cryos,John1960. Did you read the transcript? What the hell is your stupid rant about? the diatribe you are posting has nothing to do with the article. Obviously you just wanted to lambaste the President.
John1960 your comment >>What a joke. This President is the antithesis of free speech, especially free political speech.

Had George Bush said anything close to this, the lefty press would have been screaming about him trying to control freedom of expression.<< has no basis. Why don't justify your comment with any quotes and explanation from this article that supports your statement? People like you cause my brain to hurt badly even just thinking about lowering my standards to answer your lying tongue!

Posted by: traffikator | May 10, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

gekkobear1, mjcc1987 maybe one of the few intelligent conservative left. I mean right. You should happy that their is one who can critique his own party intelligently. But then again, he will be in the minority, who may very give to the likes of Malkin, Palin, Baachman, Limbaugh, Beck, Hanity, Oreilly, Chicken for payment lady, Demint, you get what I am saying. Well maybe you don't. See you will be left with a mix of the incompetent,dunce,liars, propagadist, racist. In other words, the real and true Republians.

Posted by: traffikator | May 10, 2010 4:29 PM | Report abuse

What Steven Corneliussen said about President Obama brushing across the rich, amazingly signficant history of Fort Monroe, but not really acknowledging it. I would add that Old Point Comfort, the site of Fort Monroe, is not only where the first Africans introduced into the English coastal colonies either stopped or disembarked; it is also the place where an American fortress was built with slave labor to defend American rights, and the children and grandchildren of these slaves re-named Fort Monroe the Freedom Fort after they found sanctuary there (and in nearby Hampton, burned by the Confederates to keep it out of Union hands). What a wonderful irony in our history. Like Mr. Corneliussen, I don't understand why the national media, and the Post in particular, haven't seen fit to highlight the danger of over-development that Fort Monroe faces once the Army vacates it in Sept 2011. Scott Butler, Newport News, VA

Posted by: hbutler192 | May 10, 2010 4:44 PM | Report abuse

President Obama brushing across the rich, amazingly signficant history of Fort Monroe, but not really acknowledging it. I would add that Old Point Comfort, the site of Fort Monroe, is not only where the first Africans introduced into the English coastal colonies either stopped or disembarked; it is also the place where an American fortress was built with slave labor to defend American rights, and the children and grandchildren of these slaves re-named Fort Monroe the Freedom Fort after they found sanctuary there (and in nearby Hampton, burned by the Confederates to keep it out of Union hands). What a wonderful irony in our history. Like Mr. Corneliussen, I don't understand why the national media, and the Post in particular, haven't seen fit to highlight the danger of over-development that Fort Monroe faces once the Army vacates it in Sept 2011. Scott Butler, Newport News, VA

Posted by: hbutler192 | May 10, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

For all of you fools out there that think this is the full text of the speech you have yet again had the wool pulled over your eyes by the lame stream media. For one thing where is the word "epantsipation" you would have to ask "Dear Leader" what that means but it is the word he used. And for all of you that feel he is so smart he also admits that he cant figure out how to use an ipod, strange how that was also omitted from this transcript of his speech

Posted by: cboushell75 | May 10, 2010 9:59 PM | Report abuse

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