Obama at Howard: 'Passion is vital, but you got to have a strategy'

Eric Bradner | 5/9/2016, 11 a.m.
President Barack Obama warned against a culture of political correctness on college campuses Saturday as he urged students at Howard ...
President Obama gave the commencement address at Howard University on Saturday (Pool photo)

— President Barack Obama warned against a culture of political correctness on college campuses Saturday as he urged students at Howard University to engage in the political process at the local level.

In a commencement address at the historically black university in Washington, Obama said students should not attempt to block lectures and interrupt speakers with whom they disagree.

"Don't do that," he said, "no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths."

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Obama singles out student during commencement speech

CNN's Fredricka Whitfield interviews one Howard University graduate who got a special shout out from President Obama during his commencement speech.

Citing the advice of his grandmother, Obama said: "Every time a fool speaks, they are just advertising their own ignorance. Let them talk."

"Listen. Engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they're wrong, rebut them. Teach them. Beat them on the battlefield of ideas," the President said. "One thing I can guarantee you: You will have to deal with ignorance, hatred, racism, foolishness, trifling folks. I promise you, you will have to deal with all that at every stage of your life. That may not seem fair, but life has never been completely fair. ... And if you want to make life fair, then you've got to start with the world as it is."

In delivering his first commencement speech of the 2016 graduation season -- and the final year of his presidency -- Obama made the case that action on issues important to black students, including mass incarceration and police behavior, require careful attention to local politics and a willingness to make bargains with those who hold opposing views.

"Let me ask you: How are you pressuring members of Congress to pass the criminal justice reform bill now before them?" he said. "If you care about federal policing, do you know who your district attorney is? Do you know who your state's attorney general is? Do you know the difference? Do you know who appoints the police chief and who writes the police manual?"

Obama added: "Passion is vital, but you got to have a strategy. And your plan better include voting -- not just some of the time, but all of the time."

A call to participate

The President pointed to low voting rates among African-Americans in non-presidential election years.

"You don't think that made a difference in terms of the Congress I've got to deal with?" he said. "And then people are wondering, 'How come Obama doesn't get this done, how come he doesn't get that done?' ... You know what, just vote. It's math. If you have more votes than the other guy, you get to do what you want."

He cited Thurgood Marshall, a Howard law school graduate who went on to become the first black Supreme Court justice, noting that Marshall and his law partners filed "dozens of lawsuits" over a 20-year period before eventually winning the famous Brown v. Board of Education case, which ended school segregation.

"They knew it would not be easy. They knew it would not be quick. They knew that all sorts of obstacles would stand in their way. ... They had discipline. They had persistence. They had faith -- and a sense of humor. And they made life better for all Americans," he said.