There is really but one outline for commencement speeches, – Congratulations. You have worked hard. New challenges are ahead. But the world is your oyster, so go get ‘em tiger! Now and then a speaker ignores the outline, sometimes for better, sometimes otherwise. The two Obama’s gave commencement speeches as Presidents and First Ladies are wont to do. Neither one of them stuck to the outline. Both introduced elements of race.
Ladies first. Michelle chose to speak at The University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff, a historically black school. She extended her congratulations and spoke of the challenges ahead. Then she spoke of Martin Luther King’s fight for equality but did not mention his dream of a color blind nation. She spoke of her husband and how he had to overcome special adversity. She spoke of injustices and of marches and blood that was shed. She spoke of civil rights activist Dr. Dorothy Height, quoting her statement regarding black activism that “This is my life’s work. It is not a job.”
Martin Luther King’s dream was of a color blind America. Michelle’s message did not help to further the realization of that dream.
Barack chose to speak at Hampton University in Virginia, also a historically black school. He too spoke of Dr. Dorothy Height and how she was denied her dignity as a black woman. He noted the disparity in educational achievement between blacks and other racial groups in America, the implied cause being social injustice.
The periods of slavery and segregation should not be forgotten, and they will not be forgotten. That is why we celebrate Martin Luther King Day. However, I am concerned that our first family may be gently stoking the ashes of resentment that Dr. King worked so hard to bury.