Presidential Hopeful Praises University’s History, Guarantees Change If Elected
Eager entrants flooded the doors of Cramton Auditorium on Howard University’s campus recently in anticipation of Sen. Barack Obama’s Opening Convocation speech.
Obama, D-Il., brought the crowd to its feet as he urged students and faculty to continue the fight toward equality. Obama’s speech focused on the injustices in the criminal justice system and cited the recent incidents in Jena, La. and Georgia as the evidence for the need of “a new dawn of justice in America.”
“It’s not enough just to look back in wonder of how far we’ve come,” Obama said during his convocation address. “I want us to look ahead with a fierce urgency at how far we have left to go.”
Obama acknowledged Howard’s social activism by applauding students who traveled to Louisiana in support of the Jena “6”, six black teenagers who face jail time for their alleged roles in a schoolyard fight with a white student.
“I commend those of you here at Howard who have spoken out on Jena ‘6’ or traveled to the rally in Louisiana,” he said. “I commend those of you who’ve spoken out on the Genarlow Wilson case. I know it can be lonely protesting this kind of injustice.”
Obama used the Cramton stage to address his political intentions as president of the United States. The crowd roared and rose to its feet when he said, “when I become president,” and then jokingly added, “it has a ring to it.”
The availability of a college education, appropriate drug rehabilitation for first-time non-violent offenders, and a promise to continue the fight against racial inequality are some of the guarantees Obama made to the members of the Howard community.
Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert presided over the ceremony which began with the academic procession where deans, trustees and other university notables marched in to the tune of a live orchestra. The Rev. Dr. Bernard L. Richardson performed the invocation and Chairman of the Board of Trustees Addison Barry Rand delivered the greeting.
During the ceremony Obama was awarded with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, to which he commented, “this is not the first honorary degree that I’ve received, but it’s the most meaningful.”
Obama also mentioned the role that Howard has played advancing the African-American community by being the breeding ground for many of the great African-American pioneers.
“It was Howard that sent the first African American to the United States Senate. It was Howard that graduated the first African American to become governor and the first to become mayor of the largest city in the country. It was here, within the halls of this campus, where Thurgood Marshall huddled with the brilliant minds of his day to craft the arguments in Brown v. Board that ignited a movement that changed the world,” he said. “And it is because of these victories that a black man named Barack Obama can stand before you today as a candidate for President of the United States of America.”
Opening Convocation is a 140-year-old tradition which marks the formal beginning of each academic year. It is held in September to acclimate freshmen and new students to the Howard University family.
According to Artis Hampshire-Cowan, senior vice president and secretary of the Board of Trustees, this year’s convocation is the first of its kind, with the largest demand for attendance and is only the second ticketed convocation event-the first being the 2007 Commencement ceremony where Oprah Winfrey was the speaker.
Obama is the most recent in a long line of influential African Americans to have addressed the Howard community. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Ossie Davis and Kofi Annan have all journeyed to “The Mecca” to speak before the student body with words of encouragement and inspiration.
“I think that Howard has had its course of fabulous speakers who always encourage the incoming class to succeed,” said Howard alumna Krystal James, who graduated in 1995, but attended this year’s convocation. “Of course right now his celebrity status is unmatched, but I’ve heard excellent speakers at Howard before, he’s among them.
His celebrity, which many believe is due to him being the first “serious” African-American presidential hopeful, is also played out in the media as he and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-NY are the democratic front-runners of the 2008 Presidential Election.
Obama led the scholars off of the stage as they walked down the aisles of the auditorium in the closing academic recession. Shaking hands with students and greeting the frantic crowd, he quickly exited. Patrons lingered after the ceremony discussing the event and hoping to catch a glimpse of the presidential candidate. As the black SUV that carried Obama rolled by, cheers arose from the crowd, which then quickly dispersed.
First year PhD candidate Daniel Oyugi was especially interested in hearing Obama speak because Oyugi is from the same country and tribe as Obama’s father, the Luo tribe of Kenya.
“The most important thing that brought me here was listening to Obama,” Oyugi said. “His parents come from where I come from. The courage that he has, not a lot of people have.”
Erica Walker, a sophomore at Howard, said the speech was inspiring and praised Obama for being a great orator. She liked the promise Obama made during his speech of what he plans to do as president.
“He told us what he was willing to do as president,” said Walker, a legal communication major, “everything that he said is very feasible and he should be able to do that.”
Obama smiled as he was whisked out of the auditorium, as he headed to the Congressional Black Caucus to take part in the Annual Legislative Conference.
“[Obama],” said Swygert to the audience of 1,500, “represents a reality of a possibility that my generation did not think could come true in our lifetime.”