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First Lady Michelle Obama urged Jackson State University graduates on Saturday to write their own story when facing the obstacles of their generation.

“The question is not when will you come across these issues, but how will you respond when you do,” Obama said, speaking before some 800 graduates and an estimated 35,000 in the stands of Mississippi Veterans Memorial stadium in Jackson.

With a national election looming in November, Obama told graduates that combating issues such as the fight against discrimination to providing universal healthcare all starts with a ballot.

“(You can start a) hashtag, but those movements will disappear faster than a snapchat if you’re not also registered to vote,” Obama said. “I guarantee that the progress we fought for will still be under threat.”

“We’ve all seen how swiftly progress can go backward,” Obama said, seeming to refer to Mississippi’s new religious freedom law.

From the murder of Emmett Till and the jailing of Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights years to the current 24-hour news cycle with “feeds limited to folks who think like we do,” Obama spoke about examples of challenges with discrimination both Mississippians of the past and present are familiar with.

She noted the history of the stadium she was speaking in, once a whites-only facility that was integrated in 1967 with a football game between Grambling University and Jackson State, which won the game. She noted that the two teams were aware a nation was watching and “They didn’t stoop to the level of those who sought to oppress them.”

Obama brought up her own experiences she’s faced living out her role at the White House and how “politics has always been a rough sport,” referring to charges against her husband that have included nonstop questions about his birth certificate.

Yet, the First Lady also said it would be unfair to ignore positive changes the country has seen, from no longer being forced to use a separate water fountain for the color of one’s skin to tackling climate change.

“It may feel like a volatile time,” Obama said. “We may be broken-heartened that we’re still dealing with poverty and gun violence. It is progress that these issues are seeing the light of day at all.”

She said she and the president choose to “look to the horizon” when they are criticized and rely on their faith to keep moving forward.

She noted progress for the country since President Obama took office, including 14 million new jobs, the unemployment rate cut in half, federal government deficits down by two-thirds, high school graduation rates the “highest on record,” 20 million more people with health insurance and “people free to marry the ones they love.”

She challenged students to use the tools they’ve learned at Jackson State to counter obstacles they may face in the future.

“I’m not here because I was special,” she said. “I was you. If I’m here, you can do it, too.”

She said education is one of the most powerful tools graduates can use to achieve this goal.

“Excellence is the most powerful answer you can give to the doubters and the haters … how you make yourself stronger and smarter,” Obama said.

“There was so much hope (in her speech),” said Barbra Johnson of Jackson as she exited the stadium. “A struggle moving forward in progress. That’s what I wanted out of all of this, and she brought it.”

“She did her research,” said Shirley Allen from Clarksdale. “She managed to explain things about (Jackson State University) that even I didn’t know. I was knocked out by what she said about voting. She is right. If kids aren’t voting, what progress is actually being made?”

Jackson State University student De'Una Wilson outside Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium where commencement ceremonies were being held.
Jackson State University student De’Una Wilson outside Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium. Credit: Zachery Oren Smith, Mississippi Today

“It’s truly an honor to have Michelle Obama here having what might be one of her final speeches as the First Lady,” De’Una Wilson, a graduating senior from Canton, said before the ceremony. “To get to be a part of it is  just really exciting.”

Jackson State University, founded in 1877, is one of the largest institutions of higher education in Mississippi and a Historically Black University originally established to educate newly freed African Americans to become ministers and teachers.

“For some of these families, this is the first of theirs to graduate,” Jerome Moore of Jackson said as he waited for the event to start. “It’s like the lottery. You have all these people excited because their family just won a big one. Then with the First Lady on top of that, it’s like winning the powerball.”

Lorine Phillips Griffith said she came just to hear Obama speak. “She is a lady of such wisdom,” Griffith said. “I was happy for her to come because she is a woman, and she is taking the lead.”

Her friend Cynthia Williams Sampson shared her enthusiasm: “It is just her presence and her charisma. Knowing she is here is just very exciting.”

Traffic near the stadium slowed to a crawl, especially near the Fondren neighborhood, in the hours before the ceremony. Some in the stadium were holding umbrellas to shield themselves from the bright sun.

Before she began her address, Obama was presented with an honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters. “You’re a tiger now, First Lady,” Jackson State University President Carolyn W.  Meyers said.

“I’m a tiger now,” Obama replied to cheers as she began speaking.

The First Lady, who arrived from a state visit to London, was heading to Washington, D.C., after the ceremony. She departed the stadium as soon as she ended her speech.

Contributing: Zachary Oren Smith

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