Without the springtime rituals of traditional graduation ceremonies, former President Barack Obama delivered a virtual commencement address on Saturday, urging thousands of graduates at historically black colleges and universities “to seize the initiative” at a time when he says the nation’s leaders have fumbled the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The speech combined the inspirational advice given to graduates with pointed criticism of the handling of a public health crisis that has killed more than 87,000 Americans and crippled much of the economy.
“More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing,” Mr. Obama said in an address streamed online. “A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”
It was one of his few public addresses to a national audience during the outbreak, and he said a leadership void had created a clear mandate for the graduates: “If the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you,” he said.
[Mr. Obama will also speak to high school graduates at 8 p.m. Eastern in an event you can watch below.]
Mr. Obama’s remarks were billed as a commencement speech, but they also appeared to be an effort to comfort and assure an American public divided by President Trump’s handling of the crisis. The former president also used the moment to attempt to rally the nation in an election year around values historically championed by Democrats like universal health care, and environmental and economic justice.
Since leaving office three years ago, Mr. Obama generally has avoided publicly criticizing Mr. Trump. But his jabs at the pandemic response could further inflame tensions between the two most recent occupants of the White House.
“It would have been bad even with the best of governments,” Mr. Obama said on the call. “It has been an absolute chaotic disaster when that mind-set — of ‘what’s in it for me’ and ‘to heck with everybody else’ — when that mind-set is operationalized in our government.”
Mr. Obama’s address to more than 27,000 students at 78 participating historically black colleges and universities was the first of two commencement speeches by the former president on Saturday.
He is also scheduled to have remarks air during a prime time special for high school graduates that starts at 8 p.m. Eastern on the major television networks. That event, “Graduate Together: High School Class of 2020 Commencement,” is organized by XQ Institute, a think tank that works with schools, in partnership with LeBron James’s foundation and the Entertainment Industry Foundation, a philanthropic organization.
The two-hour event for historically black schools, “Show Me Your Walk H.B.C.U. Edition,” was streamed on the social media platforms of its corporate sponsor, JPMorgan Chase. It featured Kevin Hart as host as well as dozens of prominent African-American athletes, politicians and entertainers, many of whom were H.B.C.U. graduates.
[You can see Mr. Obama’s remarks, beginning 1 hour, 47 minutes into the video below.]
Mr. Obama told the graduates, most of whom are black, that the coronavirus “just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that black communities have historically had to deal with in this country.”
The disparities are not just in public health, but also “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,” he said.
It was a reference to the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was chased by a white father and son and fatally shot in a coastal Georgia community in February.
As communities across the country emerge from stay-at-home measures, and people clash over how much freedom they should have, Mr. Obama suggested that Americans needed to be considerate of others.
He encouraged the graduates to work with other marginalized groups in their efforts to create societal change.
“It doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick,” he said, later adding that, “our society and democracy only works when we think not just about ourselves, but about each other.”
Ariel Turnley, 21, watched her own Spelman College virtual graduation with her mother and aunt in the living room of her Lauderhill, Fla., home, then tuned into Mr. Obama’s speech for H.B.C.U. students.
“I think President Obama said what so many of us feel, that those in power are not doing the best things they can during this pandemic with the power they have,” said Ms. Turnley, who graduated with a degree in computer science. “I also appreciated him talking about the injustices that have been highlighted during this pandemic. This is not the graduation that we imagined, but I felt like he offered the words I wanted to hold on to during this crisis.”
Erica Bullard, 22, stopped packing up her apartment in Hampton, Va., to listen to Mr. Obama’s remarks. She graduated from Hampton University earlier this month with a degree in strategic communications and hopes to walk across the stage at a commencement ceremony in September. Ms. Bullard said she was most struck by Mr. Obama’s advice to become a leader of your generation, give back to your community and build strong relationships with other disenfranchised groups.
Mr. Obama’s speech came at a time when new social-distancing norms have dashed many graduation traditions — from the ritual of walking across the stage to tossing of the graduation cap to family and friends celebrations — so popular political leaders and celebrities have stepped in to offer assuring messages as graduates enter a world shaped by uncertainty, infection fears and economic instability.
On Friday, Oprah Winfrey urged the “pandemic class” to rebuild a more fair society in a video commencement speech hosted by Facebook.
Mr. Obama is scheduled to make a third online commencement address on June 6, along with Michelle Obama, in a ceremony hosted by YouTube. The three events were among dozens of requests the Obamas received from around the world to address graduates whose in-person ceremonies had been canceled, their office said in statement.
While he was president, Mr. Obama delivered the commencement addresses at three historically black schools, Hampton University, Howard University and Morehouse College.
The former president has had a complicated relationship with the H.B.C.U. community. While overall funding for the institutions increased during his eight years in office, some complained that he did not make them a priority, and that cuts and changes made under his watch to Pell grants and other loan programs made life difficult for some H.B.C.U. students.
On Saturday, Mr. Obama said that H.B.C.U. graduates were the “inheritors of one of America’s proudest traditions,” and they needed to act.
“Whether you realize it or not, you’ve got more road maps, more role models, and more resources than the Civil Rights generation did,” he said. “You’ve got more tools, technology, and talents than my generation did. No generation has been better positioned to be warriors for justice and remake the world.”