JSU graduates absorb Obama’s message

April 28, 2016 in Education, News

By Shanderia K. Posey


First Lady Michelle Obama addresses the nearly 800 graduates Saturday at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium. PHOTO BY JAY JOHNSON

First Lady Michelle Obama addresses the nearly 800 graduates Saturday at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium. PHOTO BY JAY JOHNSON

She hasn’t seen it yet, but somebody somewhere has a photo of Charence Higgins, Miss Jackson State University 2015-2016, greeting First Lady Michelle Obama prior to commencement last Saturday at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium.



Higgins and JSU’s Student Government Association president for 2015-2016, Rashad Moore, were the only two students allowed to meet Obama prior to the ceremony. Others permitted to greet the first lady included JSU’s Cabinet and local and state dignitaries.

Higgins recalls being at a loss for words once she entered the room to meet Obama.

“She already knew who we were. She greeted us by name. She said she was looking forward to meeting us and she gave us a big hug,” said Higgins, who wasn’t allowed to bring her cellphone but was aware of photos being taken.

The significance of the surreal moment didn’t hit Higgins until the next day.

“Sunday morning I woke up crying and smiling at the same time,” Higgins said. During her matriculation at Jackson State people often told her JSU wasn’t for her. Coming from Madison, where the schools are predominately white, people didn’t always see the value of attending an HBCU, Higgins explained. However, Obama’s speech to JSU, which brought national attention, was an opportunity for all to see the value of JSU.

“It came full circle for me,” Higgins said.

Obama issuing the commencement speech to the approximately 800 JSU spring 2016 graduates could likely go down in history as the institution’s most historic moment ever.

About 35,000 people were in attendance as the first black woman to be first lady of the United States touched on a variety of topics during the commencement address.

She recalled JSU’s history from starting with 20 students as a Baptist seminary as well as the history of the stadium where commencement was held.

Obama shared how Jim Crow laws forbade blacks from playing or attending events at the stadium in the 1960s. However, JSU played a role in seeing those laws change with a football game against Grambling in 1967 at the stadium. Then JSU coach Rod Paige had to lead his team during what was considered terrifying times. Paige instructed the football players to beat Grambling but also “rise above the fray and set a good example because the whole state, the whole country would be watching,” Obama said.

“So by simply showing and displaying sportsmanship, those players and coaches and fans joined the long line of heroes who made history in this country … They didn’t stoop to the level of those who sought to oppress them. Just the opposite. They rose up; they combatted small-mindedness with dignity, integrity and excellence … And, graduates, I’m here today to tell you that that approach to life isn’t just something you should read about in the history books; it’s a road map for how to live your lives every single day. And how do I know? Because I’ve seen the power of that approach up close and personal,” she said.

Obama continued sharing information on Mississippi civil rights history including the murder of Emmett Till and the assassination of Medgar Evers.

Obama’s account of that history is what impressed Higgins, who studied theater and psychology at JSU, the most. The same goes for JSU 2016 graduate Hannah Hulitt, 21, of Jackson, who studied industrial technology.

“I didn’t know the history (of the stadium) so that made it very special,” said Hulitt, who played in JSU’s Sonic Boom of the South from 2011-2012. “It stood out how she relayed the message talking about how whites didn’t want us to come to games, concerts or anything. As a former band member who performed at the stadium, learning this history “makes it even better,” Hulitt said.

Obama also reflected on progress the country has made in race relations. Still she acknowledged that despite progress, “shadows of the past have not completely disappeared.” With that she told graduates, “The question isn’t whether you’re going to come face-to-face with these issues; the question is how you’re going to respond when you do. Are you going to throw up your hands and say that progress will never come? Are you going to get angry or lash out? Are you going to turn inward and just give in to despair and frustration? Or are you going to take a deep breath, straighten your shoulders, lift up your head, and do what Barack Obama has always done – as he says, “When they go low, I go high.”

That’s the choice Barack and I have made. That’s what has kept us sane over the years. We simply do not allow space in our hearts, minds, or souls for darkness. Instead, we choose faith

– faith in ourselves, in the power of hard work.”

Besides reminding the graduates of the challenges they will face in life, she also emphasized the importance of voting.

“As you seek to develop your own strategies to address the problems that still plague our communities, I just ask you to remember that the power of voting is real and lasting. So you can hashtag all over Instagram and Twitter, but those social media movements will disappear faster than a Snapchat if you’re not also registered to vote, if you’re not also sending in your absentee ballot,” Obama said.

By addressing voter apathy Obama then touched on recent legislation in the state, specifically the so-called “Religious Freedom Act.”

“If we fail to exercise our fundamental right to vote, then I guarantee that so much of the progress we’ve fought for will be under threat. Congress will still be gridlocked. Statehouses will continue to roll back voting rights and write discrimination into the law. We see it right here in Mississippi – just two weeks ago – how swiftly progress can hurdle backward, how easy it is to single out a small group and marginalize them because of who they are or who they love,” she said.

“So we’ve got to stand side by side with all our neighbors – straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, Muslim, Jew, Christian, Hindu immigrant, Native American – because the march for civil rights isn’t just about African Americans, it’s about all Americans. It’s about making things more just, more equal, more free for all our kids and grandkids. That’s the story you all have the opportunity to write. That’s what this historic university has prepared you to do.”

Shanderia K. Posey can be reached at sposey@mississippilink.com.

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