Former US President Barack Obama gives online graduation speech for class of 2020

AP
  • Livestreamed because of coronavirus, he addressed the secondary school class of 2020 and black university graduates
  • Obama noted that Covid-19 has ‘torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they are doing’
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Former US President Barack Obama spoke at two livestreamed graduation events on Saturday, and plans to participate in a star-studded YouTube event on June 6. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow, File)

Former US President Barack Obama gave a livestreamed speech on Saturday for 2020 high school graduates in an hourlong broadcast carried by major networks and across social media platforms. The event was sponsored by XQ Institute, an education reform nonprofit; the LeBron James Family Foundation; and the Entertainment Industry Foundation. 

He also spoke to students graduating from historically black colleges and universities, as educational institutions worldwide have been forced to cancel in-person graduation ceremonies because of the coronavirus.

As the nation’s first African American president, Obama had a special message for black college graduates about the challenge of confronting racial inequities exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis and spotlighted by the case of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man who was shot after being chased down by two white men in Georgia.

A third event is slated for June 6, when Obama and his wife, Michelle, will participate in a star-studded graduation celebration via YouTube. Other participants in the lineup include Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Defence Secretary Bob Gates and Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani women’s education activist who won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.

Obama said the Covid-19 outbreak has “torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they are doing.”

“A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge,” Obama said.

The speeches turned the national spotlight on Obama at a time when the former president is becoming a central figure in the 2020 presidential campaign. His vice president, Joe Biden, has emerged as the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee and is embracing the Obama legacy.

And after largely keeping away from politics during the primaries, as for much of his post-presidency, Obama has lately aimed a series of withering critiques at Trump for his handling of the coronavirus crisis and other matters.

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“Let’s be honest — a disease like this just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country,” Obama said.

“We see it in the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on our communities, just as we see it when a black man goes for a jog, and some folks feel like they can stop and question and shoot him if he doesn’t submit to their questioning.”

The idea of Obama giving a national commencement speech provoked a social media clamour in April when a Los Angeles high school student, Eagle Rock High senior Lincoln Debenham, took to Twitter to petition the former president.

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“Like most high school/college seniors, I’m saddened by the loss of milestone events, prom & graduation. In an unprecedented time, it would give us great comfort to hear your voice,” he tweeted at Obama, and drew 226,000 likes and more than 46,000 retweets.

An Obama aide said Saturday that the former president was “aware of and flattered by the viral campaign,” but that his commencement plans were made in response to a broader “deluge of requests from institutions, school systems and other organisations.”

“Given the unprecedented situation graduates are facing, the president wanted to send inspirational messages to them directly across several platforms,” the Obama aide said.

Torrey Pines High School graduating student Phoebe Seip, 18 (right), and her sister Sydney, 22, watch former United States President Barack Obama deliver a virtual commencement address to millions of high school seniors who will miss graduation ceremonies due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, while celebrating Phoebe’s canceled prom night at home in San Diego, California, U.S., May 16, 2020. REUTERS/Bing Guan

In his speech to black college and university graduates, Obama did not mention Trump. But he urged graduates to assert leadership now that politics and the economy have been upended by the pandemic.

“With everything suddenly feeling like it’s up for grabs, this is your time to seize the initiative,” he said.

“Nobody can tell you anymore that you should be waiting your turn. Nobody can tell you anymore, ‘This is how it’s always been done.’”

He warned his audience against efforts to divide them against others seeking change.

“On the big unfinished goals in this country, like economic and environmental justice and healthcare for everybody, broad majorities agree on the ends,” he said. “That’s why folks with power will keep trying to divide you over the means.”