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VOL. 126 | NO. 96 | Tuesday, May 17, 2011

‘Yes We Can’

Obama delivers commencement speech to BTW class of 2011

By Andy Meek

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President Barack Obama left the bustle of Washington politics – on a day when the U.S. hit its debt ceiling and Donald Trump said he won’t run for president – to fly to Memphis and tell the Booker T. Washington class of 2011, “I’m so proud of each and every one of you.”

President Barack Obama congratulates Gabrielle Lee of Booker T. Washington High School after she receives her diploma at the Cook Convention Center on Monday.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Obama delivered the commencement address to an audience of BTW grads, faculty, city school leaders and an assortment of state and local political figures.

Obama’s address was a result of BTW winning the 2011 White House Race to the Top Commencement Challenge. And in what was Obama’s first visit to Memphis as president, he gave the city – and its generation of tomorrow – plenty of love.

A running joke from several of the commencement speakers was that the pollen level in the air was responsible for many teary eyes at the Memphis Cook Convention Center.

The White House said BTW’s improved graduation rate of more than 80 percent  was a major factor in winning the presidential address.

“We are here today because every single one of you stood up and said, ‘Yes we can,’” Obama told the seniors.

“That’s why I came here today. Because if success can happen here at Booker T. Washington, it can happen anywhere in Memphis. It can happen throughout Tennessee. And it can happen all across America.”

Listening to those words was former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, a BTW grad who grew up in a two-room apartment in South Memphis and walked to BTW during his high school years.

Herenton said he was pleased the “eyes of the nation are on Memphis today.”

The president’s eyes were on the city for several reasons, including the recent flooding and the effects of a record-high Mississippi River, which crested several days ago at just under 48 feet.

Obama had a private meeting with flooding victims. He also made a surprise drop-in visit for BTW’s senior class before the commencement began Monday.

The students weren’t aware Obama was going to surprise them behind curtains away from the main ballroom area. When he walked out smiling, there were cheers and some sobs that eventually gave way to silence.

“How’s everybody doing?” Obama asked.

He got one loud reply: “Awesome.”

Booker T. Washington seniors sing a song that earned them a visit from President Barack Obama for their commencement address. Booker T. Washington High School has been recognized as the winner of the Race To The Top Commencement Challenge, a program to recognize the high school with the greatest increase in its graduation rate.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Previewing his speech to the stunned seniors, Obama told them, “A lot of you had to struggle to get here. Most of you weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth, but what you’ve shown is determination, what you’ve shown is character, what you’ve shown is a willingness to work hard and the ability to steer clear of folks who were trying to send you down the wrong path.”

The president told them “you inspire me.”

“This is just the beginning and not the end, all right? God bless you guys. I’m so excited to be here.”

He greeted several students. Eventually, the students noticed BTW principal Alisha Kiner seeming to tear up.

“No, no,” she said. “You know that’s just pollen.”

Before he walked to the microphone, BTW student Christopher Dean got in a dig at the so-called “birthers” who’ve shined a national spotlight on Obama’s birth certificate and the circumstances of his birth.

Dean said the speaker needed little introduction, because everyone already knew where he lived, worked, “and where he was born,” a line that drew big laughs including from Obama.

After beginning his remarks, the president acknowledged a line of political figures in attendance by name, including Tennessee’s U.S. Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, former Memphis congressman Harold Ford Jr., current congressman Steve Cohen and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.

Cohen said prior to the speech that he’s flying back with Obama on Air Force One and intended to talk to him about local issues including matters related to the recent flooding.

In his speech, Obama jokingly referred to BTW’s apparently steely principal, drawing some laughs when he told the crowd “I can tell she is not messing around. I’ve only been in Memphis a couple of hours, but I’m pretty sure I’d do whatever she told me to do.”

White House reporters didn’t ask much about Memphis in Monday morning’s “press gaggle” with White House press secretary Jay Carney.

After welcoming reporters aboard Air Force One at 9:30 a.m. Memphis time and telling them the president is making his way to Memphis to deliver the commencement address, one reporter asked whether Obama would address the local flooding at all in his BTW remarks.

“Well, he’s been getting regular updates on the flooding in general, not just – I mean, with regard to the Mississippi River, and the effects – the impact it’s had down river, as you would say,” Carney replied.

Obama spent about 35 minutes before his commencement address meeting with flood victims, first responders, volunteers and local elected officials.

Sitting down, he said he “wanted to hear first-hand” about the flooding impact and went around a square table asking questions.

According to a “readout” from the White House, Obama “heard stories about people having to evacuate their homes and move in with family members; briefings from first responders about how they dealt with (and) monitored the rising waters and alerted people; and reports from faith-based volunteer organizations on their relief efforts.”

Obama told all the participants he’s grateful for their resilience.

He had a similar message during his remarks for the graduates.

“Not a single one of the graduates here today has had it easy,” Obama said. “Not a single one of you were handed anything on a silver platter. You had to work for it. You had to earn it. But most of all, you had to believe in yourselves.”

During the commencement proceedings following his remarks, Obama did not hand out the diplomas, but he was the next stop for each student after they picked up their diploma.

Obama shook every student’s hand. Some of the students hugged him.

The president exited the convention center from the Front Street side and returned to his motorcade.

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