An old friend's open letter to Michelle Obama

May 16, 2009 

Dear first lady Michelle Obama:

Welcome to Merced. On behalf of the entire community, we want to thank you for graciously accepting our invitation to speak at the commencement for the inaugural graduating class of 2009 at the University of California, Merced.

As you know, I grew up here and attended public schools through high school.

As a native Mercedian, I was thrilled that the new UC Merced campus opened four years ago. Today, I’m thrilled beyond belief that you honor us by agreeing to give the commencement address for the 2009 UC Merced graduating class.

What makes this an amazing event is that we have had so many reasons to celebrate this year, and your words will inspire us to even higher levels. We recognize that 2009 is the year your husband and my friend, Barack Obama, became the first African-American president in the history of this country.

It was a great achievement with enormous amounts of effort from Americans across the country. We were not divided by ideological, race, age and gender differences. It is also the year we celebrated the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, one of President Obama’s favorite presidents. In addition, we celebrated the 80th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a person who paved the way for all of us. When I think about the progress we have made as a country, I am constantly reminded that Dr. King would have been 80 on Jan. 15, and that he has been dead longer than he lived. It is a reminder of how precious his 39 years of commitment were to this country, and yet how much we have continued to focus on his goals -- reducing the equality gap between the haves and have-nots.

I have no doubt that he’s looking down from heaven smiling with great joy seeing Barack Obama, you, Malia and Sasha in the White House.

I know how important legacies are to you.

Indeed, the work you have done as a brilliant student at Princeton University and Harvard Law School, as a legal aid attorney for poor clients as part of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau and as a lawyer in Chicago are just a few examples of how you have continued your parents’ legacy of struggle and progress.

They gave you and your brother Craig the room to learn and grow. You both have been blessed with enormous opportunities and have used them to make communities better and to open up avenues to success for those who follow you.

Merced is an amazing community. I remember in the early days having to adjust to the challenges of limited opportunity and wondering what would lie ahead. And yet I recall, through my interest in reading, my thirst for knowledge and my deep belief of the role God played in my life, I knew anything was possible as long as I remained faithful to my pursuit of higher goals. As I look back on Merced now, I do so with mixed emotions.

While it is wonderful that there is the great University of California, Merced, with its inspired student body graduating today, it is also sobering to see the level of suffering across this city, state and nation as a result of our sagging economy and declining employment opportunities.

If time permitted, I would have taken you to one of my favorite places growing up as a child — the Merced County Fairgrounds. While I would regale you with stories of the wonderful carnival rides, cotton candy, and the sense of patriotism and camaraderie, it would be remiss of me to not share with you the troubling history of this same location being used during World War II to confine nearly 5,000 Japanese-American citizens after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

I would conclude my brief tour by stating that we have learned the lessons of history and are in a position to make sure that events that occurred in the last century are unimaginable and unthinkable in this one.

With your limited time here, you obviously will not be able to visit and see, both the hard work done by Mecedians as well as the difficulties we face as a community. I remember the robust efforts to construct new homes in 2005 during the early days of the new university, and now look at the vacant lots, foreclosures, and unemployment lines that continue to grow every day.

I remember with great nostalgia spending afternoons during the school year and on weekends during the summer at the local library, reading books that would satisfy my thirst for knowledge and imagining the possibilities that might exist for a young black boy from the south side of Merced.

I am now stuck with the stark reality that the libraries are open fewer hours, and that so many young people find themselves incarcerated in juvenile detention facilities or in the local jails. Success is palpable in terms of the number of students going to college, but the staggering economy has created disappointing signs.

I think about all the mentors during my life, and those in your lifetime, who have influenced us to think of education as a key to success. Finding those mentors and making them available to underrepresented communities is a difficult task, and I hope that your presence here might stimulate both the difficult discussion and the concrete efforts necessary to address the needs of the community.

You will certainly note during your time here that Merced is not the same as the south side of Chicago. Yet I clearly recognize that growing up on the south side of Chicago had to make you wonder if you would ever be where you are today. As you recently stated: “Nothing in my life ever would have predicted that I would be standing here as the first African- American first lady. I was not raised with wealth or resources or any social standing to speak of. I was raised on the South Side of Chicago -- that’s the real part of Chicago.”

Ironically, growing up on the south side of Merced gave me the same doubts and fears, and like you I am grateful that I was able to overcome my humble beginnings. Though both are proud communities with a heritage of success and hard work, they also represent two different faces of America.

As you think back on your formative days as a young child attending public school in Chicago and I think of my time in public school in Merced, we each had the nurturing and support to take us a long way.

As we look back now, we can see that both communities have to deal with unacceptable increases in violence, high levels of dropouts from public school and joblessness that is outright painful to observe.

As we think of the safe havens in our commun- ity where we could play, read and have fun, those zones are less available in the 21st century than they were in the last. It is a stark reminder of how many people are losing the opportunity to succeed and how many challenges there are going forward.

As you reflect upon your time at Princeton University and I reflect on my time at Stanford University, we assumed with great optimism that generations of people like us from communities like ours would also join the ranks of those attending the great colleges and universities of this country. While we both can point to some success among those whom we mentored and followed us to these great academic institutions, it is also a sobering reminder that in the year 2009, far too many of those who we have encountered in our lifetime have been unable to pursue these prestigious paths of endless opportunity.

The great benefit of your visit to my hometown today is that you will stimulate people in ways that seemed unimaginable. I am convinced that it is not only the wonderful graduates, their parents and relatives who will gain from your visit here, but also the countless young people, attending elementary, middle and high school who will remember this day as an important moment in Merced’s history.

They will know that Mrs. Michelle Obama, the first lady of the United States, deeply cares about them and wants to encourage them to succeed. Your message of hope and opportunity will inspire many in my home town and for that, I am eternally grateful.

Sincerely,

Charles J. Ogletree, Jr

Charles J. Ogletree, Jr is the executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School and served as a senior adviser to Barack Obama during his campaign for the presidency. He is most recently the author of “When Law Fails: Making Sense of Miscarriages of Justice,” published by NYU Press (2009).

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