After tens of thousands waited for hours in the blazing sun Saturday to hear Michelle Obama’s commencement address to Jackson State University graduates, the temperature nudged even higher inside the Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium as the first lady touched on the state’s historic past and denounced its recently enacted “Religious Freedom” law.
She acknowledged the state’s “incredible hospitality” then delivered a rousing speech that sounded more like a sermon that combined heat and thunder. Despite having just arrived from London to celebrate the queen’s 90th birthday, she said, “I wouldn’t be anywhere else but here. I may be a little jetlagged, but I’m here, right now, to celebrate all of you.”
Reflecting on its humble beginnings as a Baptist seminary with just 20 students, she described today’s JSU as a “distinguished university – one of the largest, most vibrant HBCUs in the country.”
JSU President Carolyn W. Meyers called the occasion a special moment for graduates, the Jackson State community and Mississippi because “it’s the first time a sitting first lady of the United States of America has graced us with her presence.”
Meyers said, “I am especially honored to be in the company of this community that understands the promise of learning and that walk the walk and not just talk the talk.” Furthermore, she said, “Together when we get this business of education right the state, the nation and the whole world benefit.”
Before Obama delivered her address, Meyers conferred to Obama the university’s highest academic honor – the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters – for leadership, service, achievement and inspiration.
In her speech, Obama recapped the state’s well-documented history and retraced its actions about three weeks ago when it passed controversial legislation that opponents say legalizes discrimination against many individuals.
She said, “We’ve got to stand side by side with all our neighbors – straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender; Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindu immigrants, Native Americans. The march to civil rights isn’t just about African-Americans, it’s about all Americans.”