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Remarks by the First Lady at the Black History Month “Celebrating Women of the Civil Rights Movement” Panel

The White House

Office of the First Lady

For Immediate Release

February 20, 2015

East Room

4:00 P.M. EST

     MRS. OBAMA:  Good afternoon.

     AUDIENCE:  Good afternoon.

     MRS. OBAMA:  It is so good to be here with you all.  This is good stuff, right? 

     AUDIENCE:  Yes!

     MRS. OBAMA:  Well, let me begin by thanking Allyson for that very kind introduction.  (Applause.)  It is young women like Allyson and so many in this room — that’s what keeps us going, right?  Because we are all here because of you.  And you are going to do some great things — you’re already doing some great things.  She’s 18, doesn’t she make you feel old?  (Applause.)  Like you’re slacking?  (Laughter.)  No matter what — I wasn’t doing what you were doing at 18, so you are way ahead of the game, okay?   

     I also want to thank Vanessa De Luca and everyone from Essence for co-hosting this event with us today.  And of course, I want to recognize our incredible panel.  This is a good-looking panel, too.  (Laughter.)  Thank you all for joining us as we celebrate Black History Month and the women of the Civil Rights Movement.  (Phone rings.)  Is that for me?  (Laughter.)  I know.  See, I’m going to talk about you so you have a story to tell.  (Laughter.)  Now who’s calling?  Let’s find out!  (Laughter.) 

     AUDIENCE MEMBER:  You’ve got to pass —

     MRS. OBAMA:  There you go, there you go.  (Laughter.)  But we have an impressive group on stage with us today — women whose impact spans multiple generations.  Folks who have played such an important role in our progress toward the mountaintop, even though their stories aren’t always in the spotlight. 

     We’ve got Janaye Ingram, the National Executive Director of the National Action Network.  (Applause.)  We have Chanelle Hardy, the Senior Vice President for Policy at the Urban League.  (Applause.)  We have Sherrilyn Ifill, the President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.  (Applause.)  We also have the legendary reporter and trailblazer, my dance partner, Charlayne Hunter-Gault.  (Applause.)  See, this is Charlayne — the first thing she said to me is, “I want that skirt!”  (Laughter.)  I said, “Okay, after I finish.”  (Laughter.)  And finally, we have Carlotta Walls Lanier, the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine.  (Applause.) And Carlotta is still looking good.  See, that’s another thing, young ladies — you take care of yourself, you look like this panel up here.  (Laughter.) 

     So once again, let’s give these extraordinary ladies a round of applause.  (Applause.)  These women represent many different facets and eras of the movement.  They come from many different professional backgrounds –- media, law, activism, so much more.  But there is something that connects each of their stories, a common thread that animates their lives, and that is their hunger for and belief in the power of education.  Because at some point in their journeys, these women understood that if they were going to reach their potential, if they were going to make a difference not just for themselves but for this country, they would have to get a good education. 

     Every woman on this stage graduated from college, and some of them did it at tremendous risk to themselves and to their families.  Take Carlotta.  Back in the ’50s and ’60s, the Jim Crow laws mandating segregated schools and buses and water fountains were being overturned throughout the South.  And in 1957, Carlotta and eight other students enrolled in an all-white high school.  They were known as the Little Rock Nine — and Carlotta was just 14.  Fourteen years old. 

     When they showed up for their first day of class, they were met with an angry mob of people who shouted at them and wouldn’t let them in the building.  The Governor of Arkansas even sent in the National Guard to stop them from integrating that school.  It became a national story, and eventually President Eisenhower had to call in the military to protect the Little Rock Nine on their way to school.  And once these young people made it inside the building, they were bullied, spat on, physically abused by their classmates.

     But Carlotta and the other students kept showing up.  They kept studying, kept working hard.  And three years later, Carlotta earned her high school diploma.  And she stayed hungry for her education and went on to graduate from college, start her own company.  And today she serves as President of the Little Rock Nine Foundation, which gives scholarships to young people to help them reach their goals.  (Applause.)  

     And Carlotta is not the only woman on this stage who had to risk her safety just to get an education.  Charlayne has a similar story.  She was the first African American woman to attend the University of Georgia.  Her first night on campus, she heard a chant:  “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate.”  Clever.  (Laughter.)  Another night, more than a thousand students and community members gathered outside her dorm shouting racial slurs, throwing bottles and bricks at her window.  Charlayne was suspended by the school and sent home because of concerns for her safety. 

     But two weeks later, Charlayne went back to campus.  She withstood everyday bigotry and slurs from classmates and even professors.  But Charlayne dreamed of being a journalist, and she refused to let anything get in the way of earning her degree.  And that degree propelled her on to an incredible career at NPR, PBS, at CNN, at the New York Times — yeah.  (Applause.) 

     I could go on and on because these are just two of countless stories about how folks who came before us stayed hungry for their education and paved the way for those who came after them, including me and so in this room.  And today, thanks to their sacrifice, there are no angry mobs gathering outside our schools.  Nobody needs a military escort to get to class.  But that doesn’t mean that our children don’t still face struggles when it comes to education. 

     Too many of our young people attend crumbling schools that don’t have the technology, or the college-prep classes, or the college counseling they need to complete their education past high school.  And too many of our young people can’t even envision a better future for themselves, or if they do, they aren’t connecting their dreams to the education they’ll need. 

     So today, too many of the opportunities that these women fought for are going unrealized — today.  And while we should be proud that the high school graduation rate for black students is improving, it is still lower than just about any other group in this country.  And while college graduation rates have risen for nearly every group -– including African American women –- the rate for African American men has flatlined.  And we all know that when students fall behind in school, they fall behind in life.  They are more likely to fall into unemployment and poverty and incarceration.

     So like many of you, I believe that education is the single-most important civil rights issue that we face today.  Because in the end, if we really want to solve issues like mass incarceration, poverty, racial profiling, voting rights, and the kinds of challenges that shocked so many of us over the past year, then we simply cannot afford to lose out on the potential of even one young person.  We cannot allow even one more young person to fall through the cracks. 

     Because who knows where the next great leader is going to come from, right?  Who knows what mind will produce the next bold idea that will change the world?  And I know the promise is out there, because I’ve seen it with my own eyes. 

     I’ve seen it in the mentees from the White House Leadership and Mentoring Initiative, some of whom are here today, my girls — hi.  (Applause.)  I’ve seen it in the young people who come to the White House for events like this.  I’ve seen it in a student like Darius Wesley, who told me his story last year. 

     When Darius was a freshman in high school on the South Side of Chicago, his mother suffered a debilitating stroke, and he had to move in with a relative all the way across town.  And as a result, every morning, Darius had to wake up at 4:00 a.m. to get on two buses and an L just to get to school.  His commute was almost three hours; obviously, it wore him out.  His grades started to slip.  Eventually, he had to transfer schools and move in with a friend. 

     But this young man kept his eye on the prize.  He took AP classes, made the honor roll, graduated from high school, and today this young man is majoring in business as the first person in his family to attend college.  (Applause.) 

     There are stories like that all over the country.  There are millions of Darius’ all over the country.  That’s the hunger that I’m talking about.  That’s what drove the women on this stage.  That’s the kind of determination that we have to reignite all across the country. 

     And that’s all on us.  It’s on us to lift up our young people as parents and preachers, as neighbors, as teachers.  It’s on us as advocates and policymakers to do everything we can to give our kids the resources they need.  But here’s the thing — it is also on the young people themselves to summon that hunger every single day. 

     So to all the young people here today who are listening, I just want you to take these stories to heart.  Listen to them.  And I want you to translate the victories that these women won into habits in your own lives.  That means going to class every day — every day.  No matter what obstacles life may throw your way, go to school.  Go to the bad school that you have.  Go to school.  (Laughter.)  It means reaching higher and understanding that completing your education past high school is an absolute necessity today to achieve your dreams.  You have to graduate and go beyond. 

     And when you’re old enough, it means voting -– not just for President, not just for the guy you like, but for mayor and school board and dogcatcher — I don’t care.  You all have to vote.  (Applause.)  And then, when you’re struggling –- that’s all we talk about, is struggling, right — when you are struggling — because you will; all of us do — we still do — if you’re worried that you’re not going to make it on to college or you don’t know how you’re going to afford it, then just don’t be afraid to ask for help.  Ask for help. 

     You are not alone.  Talk to somebody — your teachers, your parents, school counselors, anyone.  Because there are so many folks all around who want to help you reach your potential.  And you can be that person for somebody else, too.  You’re not too young.  If you’ve got a friend who’s not coming to school, who isn’t trying their best, talk to them.  Urge them to reach higher for themselves so that they can join you on a college campus one day.  Then all of you can fulfill your potential and help carry forward the dreams of all those who have come before you.

     That’s my hope for all of you, all our young people — not just during Black History Month — (laughter) — but every moment of every single day that you are breathing on this Earth.  Because I have seen your boundless promise.  I’ve seen it.  And I believe in you.  Everyone in this room believes in our young people.  And we love you all.  You have the power to create a better future for yourselves and for our country. 

     So just do the work, you got it?  (Applause.)  So I want to thank our panel, once again, for being here.  It is truly an honor and a gift to have you in this house.

     And with that, I’m going to turn it over to Vanessa, who’s going to kick things off.  I’m going to leave you all to behave yourselves.  (Laughter.)  And I want all the young people to ask questions — you know my crew.  This is my crew.  They’re supposed to be asking a lot of questions.  Don’t be shy.  When you’re in a room like this, you take advantage.  You raise your hand.  You use your voice.  Everyone here loves you. 

     And with that, Vanessa, it is all yours.  (Applause.)  

                             END                  4:15 P.M. EST

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