Remarks by the First Lady at a screening of “The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights”
South Court Auditorium
4:24 P.M. EDT
MRS. OBAMA: Hello, everyone. (Applause.) Thank you so much. It's good to have you all here. Rest yourselves.
Let me start by thanking Bonnie, not just for that very kind introduction, but for all the work that she and her crew and her family put into making this important documentary. It's truly a wonderful piece. I had a chance to look at it -- I just looked at it yesterday, actually. And it was very moving, very powerful. As I told Bonnie, it is important in this position to remember that history, and to understand just how much work goes into making change and making things happen.
So I know you guys are going to take away something very special, but I think we need to give Bonnie a round of applause for her work on this project. (Applause.) Thank you.
And I want to thank all of you for taking time to be here. We wanted to make sure to do something special on this day, because this is a perfect day I think to watch this film. Because tomorrow, as many of you may know, we're going to be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Now, did you all know that tomorrow is the -- you knew that, right? (Laughter.) All right, that’s good.
And as you’ll see in this documentary, Whitney Young was one of the main organizers of that historic march, which gathered together hundreds of thousands of people of all races and all backgrounds with the important goal of making change. In fact, Mr. Young spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial just a few minutes before Dr. King gave his I Have A Dream speech.
Now, Bonnie asked the question -- and I was in the back, so I couldn’t see the answer -- but I want to see how many people had heard of Whitney Young. I didn’t see a show of hands before you came here today. Yes, that sounds about right. Because the truth is, is that I probably wouldn’t have known about him either had I not gone to Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago -- yes indeed. (Applause.) Whitney Young.
But what we learned from this documentary is that Whitney Young drew on his decency. He drew upon his intelligence and his amazing sense of humor to face down all kinds of discrimination and challenges and all kinds of threats. But one of the things I want you guys to keep in mind, as Bonnie mentioned, is that what this documentary shows us is that there are so many unsung heroes in our history whose impact we still feel today, just regular folks. They're not always going to be the Barack Obamas, the Dr. Kings, the Malcolm Xs.
For every Dr. King, there is a Whitney Young or a Roy Wilkins or a Dorothy Height, each of whom played a critical role in the struggle for change. And then there are the millions of Americans, regular folks out there, whose names will never show up in the history books.
I'm talking about the maids who walked miles home from work every night during the bus boycotts in Montgomery. We won't know the names of those men and women, and the young people who faced down fire hoses and police dogs and angry mobs. We know some of those names, but we won't know all of them. I'm talking about the mothers and the fathers who taught their children to stand with dignity during a time when it was hard to get your kids to dream big. But those parents, throughout all that they saw, still taught their kids to dream bigger than the world ever could expect of them.
Each of those people played a critical role in the difficult and often dangerous work of building a better future for all of us. And the thing I want you all to remember, as you watch this film, is that we are here because of that struggle. I'm here because of that struggle. And even though you may think you have some struggles, your paths are a whole lot easier because of the work these men and women did. And today, as a result of their work, we're living in a more just and more fair society.
So that leads me to something else I want to ask you all and have you think about as you watch the film -- a question that Barack and I, we often discuss with our daughters. And that question is, how are you all going to continue what these folks started? I want you to think about that. What are you going to do? What will be your contribution? Think about that, because you got to start building up that energy now. It starts now. I want you to think about that. How are you going to make your community and our country safer? Each and every one of you has the power to do that. How are you going to make this entire country more prosperous and more free?
You’ll see in the video that there are so many different ways to answer this question. There are so many ways that you can contribute. You could work on a corporate board, sit on a board, be right there at the table of change. You could do that. You could strategize in the halls of power like Whitney Young did. You might want to teach -- teach some young people to write, to do math, to demand more of themselves like Whitney Young’s father did. You're going to learn a little bit about his parents, his family, his upbringing. You might want to be a filmmaker, although I saw that there weren't many hands up going -- (laughter) -- filmmakers, but I'm just saying you never know. You never know.
Or you might want to make your mark working in a hospital. You might want to do it working in your church. You might want to do it just being good parents -- raising good, decent kids with some values, just like all those hundreds of thousands of people who attended the Lincoln Memorial March 50 years ago.
But whatever you do, what I want you all to take with you is that I want you to keep pushing to be the very best that you can be at whatever you choose. And that takes hard work. And I know your teachers and your parents tell you this over and over again, but it’s real. You have to put in the time and the energy to be great.
And that leads me to a quote that Whitney Young -- one of his quotes that I love. He said, “It is better to be prepared for an opportunity and not have one, than to have an opportunity and not be prepared.” You know what that means? You got to be ready all the time. That means today you are preparing yourselves for the opportunities that are going to come your way.
Barack Obama at your age didn’t know he was going to be President of the United States -- would have bet money that he wouldn’t. I never thought I’d be the First Lady of the United States. But let me tell you something, we prepared ourselves -- as Whitney Young did, as Dr. King did. And that meant going to school every day, doing your homework every day, showing up every single day and putting your best into whatever you’re doing.
And at the core of that is your education. There is nothing more important that you all need to be doing right now. It ain’t rapping, it ain’t dancing. (Laughter.) It is learning to read and write in an outstanding way. That is your job. And if you do that, you will be prepared for whatever comes your way. But the worst thing you could do is to have that opportunity and not be ready to shine.
So you all don’t want to be in that position -- and I know you won’t. So I want you to think about that as you watch this film. I want you to ask yourselves those questions. How are you going to be the agents of change for the next generation? Because we’re counting on you all. We’re going to be old in a second. (Laughter.) Many of us are old. And we’re going to hand all of these wonderful issues over to you. And we’re counting on you all to be ready to take the helm and be the next agents of change, because there is still a lot of work to do. So keep that in mind, okay?
And I hope you enjoy the film. And I hope you keep reading and learning about the history of the Civil Rights Movement, because there are so many stories, so many, many more stories out there to learn from. And it’s important for you all to know that history.
So make this the beginning of that journey of your history so that you understand it and that you can grow from it, and that you don’t repeat the mistakes that have been made in the past, but you just build on the successes. You promise me that?
All right. Well, enjoy the film and have a great discussion. Thanks for being here. We’re proud of you guys. (Applause.) All right, you all, take care.
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