Barack and Michelle Obama addressed the Class of 2020 on Sunday in a star-studded YouTube livestream that included a joint message of congratulations to students across the world who had their academic lives upended by the . Michelle then took the "virtual stage" to address the Black Lives Matter movement and all its efforts to fight police brutality and racial injustice during the ongoing protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
"Our foundation has been shaken not just by a pandemic sending tens of millions to unemployment, but also the age-old fault lines of race and power that we must all grapple with," she said. "It's okay to be confused or don't understand how you're feeling. We're all searching in real time ... We all have no choice but to see what has been staring us in the face for years, for centuries. So, the question is, how will we respond?"
The former first lady also laid out three life lessons for graduates:
- "Life will always be uncertain. It is a lesson that most of us get the chance to learn over the course of years and years, even decades, but one you're learning right now."
- "In an uncertain world, time-tested values like honesty and integrity ... empathy and compassion. That's the only real currency in life. Treating people right will never fail you."
- Share your voice: "For those of you who feel invisible, please know that your story matters. Your ideas matter. Your experience matters. Your vision for what the world can and should be matters. So, don't ever, ever let anyone tell you that you're too angry, or that you should keep your mouth shut. There will always be those who want to keep you silent, to have you be seen but not heard. Maybe they don't even want to see you at all. But those people don't know your story, and if you listen to them, then nothing will ever change."
Michelle also explained how to channel anger for good.
"Graduates, anger is a powerful force. It can be a useful force, but left on its own it will only corrode and destroy and sow chaos on the inside and out. But, when anger is focused, when it's channeled into something more, that is the stuff that changes history," she said. Michelle used the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sojourner Truth as examples of past leaders who were angry but also "driven by compassion, by principle, by hope."
She also encouraged young people to always challenge the status quo.
"So graduates, it is your time now. And look, our democracy isn't perfect, but I have traveled the world and seen the governments and people in so many other countries, and I can tell you our democracy is sturdy, and yes, it still works. But it doesn't work if you silence yourselves. It does not work if you disengage from the process. And we're seeing the consequences of that right now. But if you hold strong with the same faith that carried all those giants before you toward real, measurable progress, you will change the course of history."
"So, what does that mean for your time?" she asked. "It starts where change always starts: in your own home ... Sometimes it's easier to stand with strangers at a protest than it is to challenge someone in your own backyard. So, if you hear people expressing bigoted views or talking down to 'those people,' it is up to you to call them out. We won't solve anything if we're only willing to do what's easiest."
At the end of her speech, Michelle became emotional: "Here's the thing: I know you can do it, because over these many years, I've seen exactly who you are. I've seen your creativity, and your talent and your resourcefulness. I've seen you speaking out to end gun violence and fight climate change. I've seen you gathering donations for those in need during this pandemic, I've seen you marching with peace and with purpose. And that is why even in tough times like these, you continue to be what gives me hope. Graduates, you all are exactly what we need right now, and for the years and decades to come. You learn so much, so quickly. And not only can do better than those before you — you will. It's your time. I can't wait to see you all take the reigns."
The YouTube livestream also featured a performance of "Pomp and Circumstance" by Lizzo and the New York Philharmonic, plus appearances by Alicia Keys, Justin Timberlake, The Simpsons, Shawn Mendes, Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, Beyoncé, Bono, BTS, Lady Gaga, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, former Secretary of State and Malala Yousafzai.
Mr. Obama also delivered a commencement address of his own Sunday night in which he urged graduates to bring about change. While the former president addressed protests earlier this week, this was his first commencement address given since the demonstrations began nationwide. Mr. Obama noted that the U.S. is a nation founded on protests, saying peaceful ones are "patriotic" and that those participating in them are "unbelievably inspiring" and make him "optimistic about our future."
He said the recent protests in response to the killings of George Floyd,and others, "speak to decades worth of anguish and frustration over unequal treatment and a failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system."
Just as the former first lady did in her speech to graduates, Mr. Obama also mentioned these uncertain times.
"So as scary and uncertain as these times may be, they are also a wake-up call, and they are an incredible opportunity, for your generation," he said. "Because you don't have to accept what was considered normal before. You don't have to accept the world as it is. You can make it into the world as it should be and could be."
Sarah Ewall-Wice contributed to this report.