Michelle Obama: Oberlin 'Likely the Only College...I Could Have Attended Nearly 2 Centuries Ago'

Susan Jones | May 26, 2015 | 7:07am EDT
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First Lady Michelle Obama addresses Oberlin College's class of 2015 on May 25, 2015, in Oberlin, Ohio. (Photo from Oberlin's website)

(CNSNews.com) - First lady Michelle Obama told Oberlin College graduates on Monday she was "moved" to receive an honorary degree from the school, since it was the "first college in America to officially embrace the admission of black students, and the first co-ed school to grand bachelor's degrees to women."

"I should be here today," Mrs. Obama said in her opening remarks. "Oberlin is likely the only college in America that I could have attended nearly two centuries ago, and I am honored to be part of the extraordinary legacy of this great institution."

Mrs. Obama said she agreed to speak at Oberlin because she is "inspired by your commitment to service and social justice," and she used much of her speech to urge students to become advocates for "social justice," or liberalism. She equated conservative opposition with "noise," "clamor" and "polarization," and she urged students to "rise above it."

The first lady noted that some Oberlin students may be sad to leave the protected, "respectful" college environment. And as she urged students to "carry on" the Oberlin legacy of social justice, she used herself as example:

"You might find yourself a little dismayed by the clamor outside these walls -- the name-calling, the negative ads, the the folks yelling at each other on TV. After being surrounded by people who are so dedicated to serving others and making the world a better place, you might feel a little discouraged by the polarization and gridlock that too often characterize our politics and civic life.  

"And in the face of all of that clamor, you might have an overwhelming instinct to just run the other way as fast as you can. You might be tempted to just recreate what you had here at Oberlin -– to find a community of like-minded folks and work with them on causes you care about, and just tune out all of the noise. And that’s completely understandable. In fact, I sometimes have that instinct myself -- run! (Laughter.)

"But today, graduates, I want to urge you to do just the opposite. Today, I want to suggest that if you truly wish to carry on the Oberlin legacy of service and social justice, then you need to run to, and not away from, the noise. Today, I want to urge you to actively seek out the most contentious, polarized, gridlocked places you can find.  Because so often, throughout our history, those have been the places where progress really happens –- the places where minds are changed, lives transformed, where our great American story unfolds."

As she often does, Mrs. Obama mentioned the civil rights struggle and her own life being "testament" to the fact that the country has become "more equal, more inclusive, more fair and more free" over time.

"Just look at the story of Oberlin College. The founders of this school didn’t just decide to admit women and African American students and then pat themselves on the back and say 'job well done.' No, even in those early days, folks here at Oberlin were attending anti-slavery meetings, shivering on rough wooden benches in unheated, unfinished buildings. They were joining the Equal Suffrage League and speaking out for women’s right to vote.

"They were leading civil rights marches and sit-ins, organizing exchange programs with historically black colleges and universities, and so much more.  Because they knew it wasn’t enough to welcome women and African American students to Oberlin if they would only graduate in four years to be second-class citizens in their own country.  They knew that our policies matter.  They knew that our laws matter.  And I know, as President Krislov understands, that electing the right folks matters –- it matters a lot."

Mrs. Obama noted that both she and the Oberlin College president were urging students to get involved in civic life: "Because we both know that you cannot fully achieve your goals of service and social justice if you turn away from politics and public policy."   

"You see, it’s wonderful to volunteer at your local homeless shelter -- please do that -- but you also need to attend the city council meetings and make sure the zoning laws don’t shut that shelter down. (Applause.)  Are you thinking of teaching in an under-served school?  If so, I’m glad to hear that.  So many kids need you.  But you’ve also got to elect good people to your school board and state legislature, because they decide whether you have the resources you need to inspire and empower your students. (Applause.)

"Are you planning to rally for marriage equality on the steps of the Supreme Court?  I certainly hope so.  (Applause.)  But I also hope you will knock on doors and make some calls to elect a President who shares your values.  Because that President will ultimately choose the justices who decide those cases in the first place.  (Applause.)

"And finally, while peaceful protest can be powerful, if we truly want to reform our criminal justice system, then we need to come together and do the hard work of changing our laws and policies to reflect our values." (Applause.)

The first lady noted that "out in the real world," Oberlin studnets will find "plenty of people who think very differently than you do...So if you want to change their minds, if you want to work with them to move this country forward, you can’t just shut them out. You have to persuade them, and you have to compromise with them.  That is what so many of our heroes of history have done."

Interestingly Mrs. Obama's husband is not a compromiser, starting his second term with a "go-it-alone," I-have-a pen-and-a-phone attitude.

Mrs. Obama told students they must concern themselves with "every city ordinance, every ballot measure, every law on the books in this country.

"What happens at every school board meeting, every legislative session –- that is your concern.  Every elected official who represents you, from dog catcher all the way to President of the United States –- they are your concern...So get out there and volunteer on campaigns, and then hold the folks you elect accountable.

"Follow what’s happening in your city hall, your statehouse, Washington, D.C. Better yet, run for office yourself. Get in there. Shake things up. Don’t be afraid.  (Applause.)  And get out and vote in every election -– not just the big national ones that get all the attention, but every single election.  Make sure the folks who represent you share your values and aspirations.

"See, that is how you will rise above the noise and shape the revolutions of your time."

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