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Michelle Obama: 'Protect the Ground That’s Already Been Won'

By Hazel Trice Edney

first-lady at commencement

( – First Lady Michelle Obama, having recalled the vehement protests, including sit-ins, for racial equality, told a group of HBCU graduates that it’s now their turn to “protect the ground” that’s been won.

“We’re not weighed down by the kind of baggage that folks had back then. We do live in a country that’s more supportive, more open, more inclusive than ever before. We've got rights and freedoms and possibilities that they would have given anything to have for themselves. But with all of those advantages comes a set of responsibilities,” the First Lady told the graduating class at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro, according to prepared remarks. “We’ve got a responsibility to protect the ground that’s already been won, because it can just as easily be lost,” she said to applause. “It can be gone. We’ve got a responsibility to live up to the legacy of those who came before us by doing all that we can to help those who come after us. That’s how we’ve always made progress -- each generation doing its part to lift up the next.”

She continued, “Each generation does its part to perfect our union. Each generation looks at the world around them and decides that it’s time to wake up and change the situation. And we’ve always looked to our young people to lead the way. We always have.”

She asked the class of graduates to ask themselves three questions: Who do I want to be? What’s going on in the world around me?  How can I help?

Then she implored them to take their turn like their predecessors at N.C. A&T.

“You have produced some of our nation’s finest leaders in business, government, and our military.  The first African-American Justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court was an Aggie. So was the second African American astronaut. And so were those four young men who sat down at a lunch counter 52 years ago and will stand forever in bronze in front of the Dudley building,” she said.

Ultimately, the lunch counter protests spread across the South. They led to the desegregation of public facilities.

The First Lady implored the graduates to pursue more than just money. She told how she set her goals for and initially went to work for a “fat check”, a nice car and a plush law office.

She had them all when she experienced two tragedies – the death of her best friend from cancer and the death of her father from multiple sclerosis. Feeling unfulfilled in her career, she asked herself probing questions about her life; quit the job and went into public service.

“I had everything I was told I should want, but it still wasn’t enough. And I realized that no matter how long I stayed on that job, no matter how many years I pursued someone else’s definition of success, I was never going to have a life that felt like my own,” she said. “And so, to the surprise of my family and friends, I quit that high-paying job and I took a job in the mayor’s office. That hurt. Then, as the Chancellor said, I became the executive director of Public Allies, a nonprofit organization that trained young people to pursue careers in public service.

After the May 12 commencement address, A&T Chancellor Harold L. Martin Sr. awarded her with the doctorate of humanities honorary degree for her commitment to public service.

“So graduates, now it’s your turn. It’s time for you to take that baton,” she said in her conclusion. “Take it. It’s time for you to carry the banner forward. It’s time for you to wake the rest of us up and show us everything you’ve got.”

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