In a commencement address at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, President Barack Obama recalls Jim Crow laws and racism of the 40s and 50s. Morehouse College is a historically black college.
"Dr. King was just 15 years old when he enrolled here at Morehouse. He was an unknown, undersized, unassuming young freshman who lived at home with his parents. I think it’s fair to say he wasn’t the coolest kid on campus; for the suits he wore, his classmates called him 'Tweed.' But his education at Morehouse helped to forge the intellect, the soul force, the disciple and compassion that would transform America. It was here that he was introduced to the writings of Gandhi, and Thoreau, and the theory of civil disobedience. It was here that professors encouraged him to look past the world as it was and fight for the world as it should be," Obama will say, according to text provided by the White House.
And it was here, at Morehouse, as Dr. King later wrote, where “I realized that nobody…was afraid.”
Think about that. For black men in the forties and fifties, the threat of violence, the constant humiliations, large and small, the gnawing doubts born of a Jim Crow culture that told you every day you were somehow inferior, the temptation to shrink from the world, to accept your place, to avoid risks, to be afraid, was necessarily strong. And yet, here, under the tutelage of men like Dr. Mays, young Martin learned to be unafraid. He, in turn, taught others to be unafraid. And over the last 50 years, thanks to the moral force of Dr. King and a Moses generation that overcame their fear, and cynicism, and despair, barriers have come tumbling down, new doors of opportunity have swung open; laws, hearts, and minds have been changed to the point where someone who looks like you can serve as President of the United States.
Later, Obama adds:
So your experiences give you special insight that today’s leaders need. If you tap into that experience, it should endow you with empathy – the understanding of what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes. It should give you an ability to connect. It should give you a sense of what it means to overcome barriers.
Whatever success I achieved, whatever positions of leadership I’ve held, have depended less on Ivy League degrees or SAT scores or GPAs, and have instead been due to that sense of empathy and connection – the special obligation I felt, as a black man like you, to help those who needed it most; people who didn’t have the opportunities that I had, because but for the grace of God, I might be in their shoes. So it’s up to you to widen your circle of your concern – to create greater justice both in your own community, but also across our country. To make sure everyone has a voice; everyone gets a seat at the table; to make sure that everyone – no matter what they look like or where they come from, or who they love – gets a chance to walk through those doors of opportunity if they want it bad enough.