Michelle Obama urges NC A&T grads to seek change

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

Michelle Obama speaking at NC A&T's 2012 graduation Saturday in Greensboro. (WGHP)

GREENSBORO, N.C. — The four North Carolina college students who started the sit-in movement for desegregation more than half a century ago shows what young people can do to change their world for the better, first lady Michelle Obama said during a commencement speech Saturday.

Obama addressed a crowd of about 15,000, including more than 1,200 graduates of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, one of the state university system’s historically black schools.

In 1960, four students put their careers and lives on the line by sitting down at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter a few miles away, asked to be served coffee, and were refused. They returned day after day in greater numbers until the company eventually was forced to end separate treatment for black and white customers.

“It’s easy to forget that before they were known as heroes, they were young people just like you,” Obama said. “It started because a small group of young people had their eyes opened to the injustice around them.”

That same determination to improve conditions is central to the American experience, Obama said, from the revolutionary generation that left their farms and shops to fight for independence to the laborers who walked picket lines for safer workplaces and better pay.

“Our country is counting on all of you to step forward and help us with the work that remains,” Obama said. “Take a look around and you'll see, there's plenty of work around still left to be done. ... Everywhere we look, there are wrongs just waiting to be made right.”

She urged new graduates to volunteer at schools where students struggle to succeed, donate an old laptop to a child that needs one, or start a fundraising drive for a homeless shelter.

North Carolina is considered a battleground state in the presidential election and the first lady's visit was expected to generate goodwill within a core Democratic Party constituency as President Barack Obama seeks re-election this fall.

Commencement invocation speaker the Rev. James Webster cited President Obama as an example to graduates that “it is possible to be head of state.”

Michelle Obama steered clear of references to politics, though she encouraged graduates to “vote, not once in a while but every year.” Nor did she address her husband's re-election bid, though the audience cheered knowingly when the first lady told graduates: “We have the responsibility to protect the ground that has already been won, because it can just as easily be lost.”

President Obama has visited North Carolina more than a dozen times as president, including four since last June. The most recent was two weeks ago when he blasted Republicans about student loan debt during a visit to the University of North Carolina of Chapel Hill. The Democratic National Convention will be in Charlotte this September.

Obama's likely Republican opponent for the White House, Mitt Romney, visited a Charlotte manufacturing plant on Friday to blame Obama for the slow pace of economic recovery. It was Romney's second visit to the city in a month.

Black voters cast nearly one out of four ballots in North Carolina's presidential election in 2008, and 95 percent of them supported President Obama over Republican John McCain, according to exit polls. Thanks largely to a huge black turnout that year, Obama won North Carolina's 15 electoral votes by just 14,000 votes.

Black voters are also expected to be crucial for Obama this year in North Carolina. But the president's barriers to winning the state again include high unemployment, which was 9.7 percent in March compared to the national average of 8.2 percent.

North Carolina voters this week approved amending the state constitution to ban gay marriage. Obama followed the next day by becoming the first president to express support for same-sex marriage.

Mrs. Obama's Greensboro address was the second of three spring commencement addresses for the first lady. She spoke at Virginia Tech on Friday and also is scheduled to speak June 17 at Oregon State, where her brother, Craig Robinson, is the men's basketball coach.

Credit: The Associated Press.