First Lady Urges Students To Protect Civil Rights, Targets ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill

Michelle Obama
First Lady Michelle Obama. File photo by Pat Benic/UPI

JACKSON, Miss., April 24 (UPI) — First lady Michelle Obama, in a politically charged speech during commencement at Jackson State University in Mississippi, targeted the state’s recently-passed “religious freedom” bill and urged students to protect their civil rights.

“We see it right here in Mississippi — just two weeks ago -– how swiftly progress can hurtle backward,” Obama told the crowd Saturday. “How easy it is to single out a small group and marginalize them because of who they are or who they love?”

“So we’ve got to stand side by side with all our neighbors –- straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender; Muslim, Jew, Christian, Hindu, immigrant, Native American — because the march for civil rights isn’t just about African Americans, it’s about all Americans,” she said. “It’s about making things more just, more equal, more free for all our kids and grand kids. That’s the story you all have the opportunity to write. That’s what this historic university has prepared you to do.”

Mississippi has received growing criticism from human rights organizations and businesses over the controversial law, which they say restricts the rights of the LGBT community, ABC News reported.

Friday, President Barack Obama said in a press conference in the United Kingdom, it “should be overturned.”

The bill passed by the Republican-led Legislature and signed by GOP Gov. Phil Bryant says workers can cite their own religious opposition to same-sex marriage and deny services to lesbian, gay,transgender or bisexual people. It becomes law July 1, the Washington Post reported.

The first lady, in her speech, also reflected on her husband’s heated political battles and urged students not to fall into that same disarray over the “anger and vitriol” in today’s political environment.

“We pay endless attention to folks who are blocking action, blocking judges, blocking immigration, blocking a raise in the minimum wage. Just blocking,” Obama said. “We are consumed with the anger and vitriol that are bubbling up, with folks shouting at each other, using hateful and divisive language.”

She then revisited some of the rhetoric directed towards her husband in his eight years as president, including the “birther” conspiracy theory widely promoted by GOP front runner Donald Trump five years ago.

Get out and cast ballots, she told the graduates.

Obama said many young African-Americans have disenfranchised themselves because only 20 percent of black voters cast votes in the 2014 midterm elections.

“You can hashtag all over Instagram and Twitter, but those social medial movements will disappear faster than a Snapchat if you’re not also registered to vote,” she told the audience, estimated at 35,000 people, including 800 graduates of Jackson State University.

Obama said if people fail to exercise the fundamental right to vote, their rights will be under threat.

“Congress will still be gridlocked. Statehouses will continue to roll back voting rights and write discrimination into the law,” Obama said.

The first lady has spoken at a historically black college or university each year since her husband became president, the White House said.

Her Jackson State appearance is one of three commencement addresses she plans make this year. The others are May 26 at the Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico and June 3 at the City College of New York campus in Harlem.


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