Michelle Obama Tuskegee University speech: What did she say about racism?

On Saturday, first lady Michelle Obama related the tale of the Tuskegee Airmen and what they went through to the most recent graduates of the historically black Alabama university.

Brynn Anderson/AP
First lady Michelle Obama is presented with a robe and honorary degree at the Tuskegee University's spring commencement, Saturday, May 9, 2015.

First lady Michelle Obama addressed a crowd of graduates and their families at the 2015 commencement ceremony at Tuskegee University, in Alabama, describing her personal battle with racism as the first African American first lady in the White House.

Ms. Obama delivered the 30-minute commencement address to much applause. But in intertwining her personal journey with that of African Americans generally, she effectively raised this question: How much has America progressed on race relations and how can this generation prevent being defined by discrimination? 

During her speech, Obama talked about Tuskegee’s rich history, one of the top black universities in the US and the training place of the US’s first World War II African American pilots. At the time, the Tuskegee Airmen faced institutionalized discrimination. Official Army reports described the black soldiers as “shiftless,” “childlike,” and “unmoral and untruthful.” Even as highly educated individuals, these men faced an upward battle within their own country.

“Just think about what that must have been like for those young men.  Here they were, trained to operate some of the most complicated, high-tech machines of their day,” Mrs. Obama said during her address. “Yet when they hit the ground, folks treated them like they were nobody -- as if their very existence meant nothing.”

Yet, when given the opportunity to respond with resilience or a spirit of defeat, they persevered.

“Now, those Airmen could easily have let that experience clip their wings.  But as you all know, instead of being defined by the discrimination and the doubts of those around them, they became one of the most successful pursuit squadrons in our military,” the first lady continued.

Obama said that while it is clear that the US has progressed on race relations, the country has further to go. She said that during her own journey to the White House, the media and critics attacked her race and questioned her character. One political sketch showed her with a “huge afro and machine gun.” She was referenced as “Obama’s Baby Mama” and one of his “cronies of color.”

She said the graduating classes of 2015 – and the next generation of African Americans – will still face racism.

"Because here’s the thing -- the road ahead is not going to be easy.  It never is, especially for folks like you and me.  Because while we’ve come so far, the truth is that those age-old problems are stubborn and they haven’t fully gone away … And all of that is going to be a heavy burden to carry.  It can feel isolating.  It can make you feel like your life somehow doesn’t matter … And as we’ve seen over the past few years, those feelings are real. They’re rooted in decades of structural challenges that have made too many folks feel frustrated and invisible.  And those feelings are playing out in communities like Baltimore and Ferguson and so many others across this country."

However, she stated that even though the journey is difficult, the reward of staying true to oneself and the truth of one’s identity is a worthy path, and one that will ultimately bring about the progress needed in the US. She elicited the image of Charles DeBow, one of the Tuskegee Airmen, as he took off in flight and soared above the discrimination that pervaded his world.

"And if you rise above the noise and the pressures that surround you, if you stay true to who you are and where you come from, if you have faith in God’s plan for you, then you will keep fulfilling your duty to people all across this country … You will feel the bumps smooth off.  You’ll take part in that ‘never-failing miracle’ of progress.  And you’ll be flying through the air, out of this world -- free."

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