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In Virtual Speech To Black Graduates, Obama Says U.S. Lacks Leadership On Coronavirus


College seniors across the country are wrapping up the final weeks of their school year, but most will be missing out on one important rite of passage - putting on a cap and gown and walking across the stage for graduation. So many schools are turning online to celebrate their seniors.

One virtual commencement which took place earlier today was geared toward graduates of the country's historically black colleges and universities, HBCUs. It included remarks from former President Barack Obama. NPR's Juana Summers covers demographics and culture, and she's with us now to tell us more about it.

Juana, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Hey there. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Tell us about the virtual commencement.

SUMMERS: Yeah. This was an online event hosted by the actor Kevin Hart and sponsored by JP Morgan Chase. It's called Show Me Your Walk HBCU Edition. It brought together a ton of prominent black figures who are sending these students off with some advice and good wishes and some performances. We're talking about folks like the NBA's Chris Paul, Gary Clark Jr., California Senator Kamala Harris and, of course, former President Barack Obama.

MARTIN: Well, what did we hear from President Obama?

SUMMERS: Yeah, so this was interesting because this is the first time we've really heard from former President Obama publicly during this pandemic. And his remarks, which came at the very end of a two-hour event - he called on graduates to seize the initiative at a time when he says that the nation's leaders have fumbled their response to the coronavirus pandemic.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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. A lot of them aren't even pretending to be in charge. If the world's going to get better, it's going to be up to you.

SUMMERS: He went on to make reference to the fact that the coronavirus has really put into the spotlight the underlying inequities and burdens that black communities in this country have had to deal with for generations - and not just in public health but across society.

We're going to hear more from President Obama soon, too. This is one of a couple of these virtual commencements that he's participating in. Later this evening, he's going to speak in a primetime special that's aimed towards the country's high school graduates. And in June, he and former first lady Michelle Obama are participating in another virtual commencement that's organized by YouTube.

MARTIN: Well, you know, obviously, the president is making a statement by giving his remarks here in this particular time to this particular group. I do want to notice that, you know, graduates all over the country are missing out on graduation activities. But I wonder if in part the president's making a statement that there's something different for historically black colleges and their students.

SUMMERS: Yeah. You know, I think that's exactly the point he's making. I mean, this is something that's been hard and stressful for all students, particularly those graduating this year into an uncertain economy and who literally are having many of them to move back in with their parents.

But HBCUs are different than a lot of schools out there. They educate, you know, a large population of low-income and first-generation students who these milestones are particularly significant for, and these campuses are just incredibly tight-knit places. I've talked to a lot of students, and they say that these are places that are like family for them. They're historic. They feel like they're part of a historic bond.

And I think it's worth noting, too, as you and I both note, these institutions are feeling the strain financially from coronavirus in a different way. HBCUs have for a long time struggled with less funding and smaller endowments than their predominantly white counterparts. So the financial challenges felt by schools across the country are exacerbated on these campuses.

MARTIN: Have you been able to get some feedback from the students? What are they saying about what they've been hearing at these speeches?

SUMMERS: Yeah, I have been talking to students all day. I spoke with one young woman, Taylor Harris, who is graduating from Hampton University in Virginia. Her classes were canceled nine weeks ago, so she moved back home to St. Louis, and she's trying to figure out what's next.

TAYLOR HARRIS: I feel like we don't get - HBCUs don't get a lot of recognition. They're kind of looked at as second-tier compared to Ivy League schools that are predominantly white institutions. So I'm just glad that celebrities are taking the chance to embrace our young African American graduates that have made a milestone because of so many statistics that we have overcome just graduating from college.

SUMMERS: Taylor told me that Hampton is planning to celebrate their graduates in September if they're able to do so during the pandemic. I also spoke to some other students. They said that they appreciate gestures like this one from former President Obama and these other celebrities who are offering up these virtual graduation events. But they also made the point that it's a little sad. There's no way to possibly replace what they've lost this year.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Juana Summers. Juana, thank you.

SUMMERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political reporter for NPR covering demographics and culture. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.