Hundreds of Morehouse alumni, families of graduates and anyone else who could get tickets to the restricted events arrived hours early and sat through several rounds of rainfall as they awaited Obama’s arrival.
“It’s absolutely worth it for a once-in-a-lifetime event like this,” said Marcus Forbes, a 2003 graduate who now lives in Los Angeles, of hours spent in a rainstorm that flooded streets around Atlanta.
It’s not unusual for sitting presidents — or nominees for president — to come to Atlanta, because it is a rich source of campaign cash. Obama’s itinerary included a stop at a Democratic Senate fundraiser hosted by Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank.
Sunday was the first time since the Great Depression that a sitting president has addressed a commencement in Georgia. President Franklin Roosevelt addressed a University of Georgia class in 1938.
Minutes before the processional began, Anne Watts, an associate vice president for academic affairs, explained why the festivities remained outdoors.
“The president didn’t come to see the Georgia World Congress Center,” she said to cheers. “He came to see a Morehouse commencement.”
When Obama emerged from a campus building with Morehouse President John Wilson Jr., he heard an ovation and looked out onto a sea of cameras and smart phones at the end of outstretched arms. Wilson was leading his first spring commencement since leaving the Obama administration in January.
The graduating class, seated in front, was particularly generous with their welcome, and Obama returned the favor, sprinkling his speech with insider reference to Morehouse life and traditions.
He told the “Morehouse men” — the traditional parlance — that they have a particular responsibility to their families and society as young, educated African-American men. With references to King and longtime Morehouse president Benjamin Mays, Obama encouraged them to use their opportunity for a greater good. He also worked a few congratulatory references to his 2010 health care overhaul.
The president did not mention successive controversies over his State Department’s handling of the Benghazi attacks, his Justice Department’s seizure of Associated Press telephone records or the IRS treatment of conservative activist groups seeking tax-exempt status.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon whose district includes Morehouse and the adjacent historically black campuses of Spelman College and Clark-Atlanta University, said Sunday wasn’t the place for a political defense.
“He’ll offer these young men and young people around the country a message of hope,” Lewis said before the speech. The furor in the capital, he added, is “mostly political theater. ... It will all be behind us soon.”