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As White House Time Winds Down, Michelle Obama Speaks Openly About Race


First lady Michelle Obama returned to her hometown of Chicago yesterday. She told graduates of King College Prep High School that she understood the real story of their South Side neighborhood.


MICHELLE OBAMA: The story of that quiet majority of good folks, families like mine and young people like all of you who face real challenges but make good choices every single day.

CORNISH: For NPR's Code Switch team, Cheryl Corley explores why Michelle Obama has been speaking out more about poverty, privilege and race. She begins with that commencement ceremony yesterday.


CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: As students in their caps and gowns began their march and settled in their seats, the first lady waved at some, gave a small fist pump and applauded. In her speech, Mrs. Obama told the graduates she was excited, proud and inspired by them.


OBAMA: But there is one thing that I'm not feeling right now, and that is surprised. I'm not surprised because I know this community. I was born and raised here on the South Side in South Shore, and I am who I am today because of this community.


CORLEY: The first lady said she knew the struggles that many of the students face, including coping with the violent loss of a classmate. And she paid homage to Hadiya Pendleton. The honor student was shot to death not far from the Obama Chicago home in 2013. That was just weeks after she and classmates participated in inauguration festivities in Washington. Obama told students to draw strength not only from the troubles they have overcome but also from the historical heroes of their neighborhood.


OBAMA: And how about Richard Wright, who spent his young adult years on the South Side? And while Richard loved to read, the local library wouldn't let him check out books because he was black. So Richard went ahead, wrote books of his own, books like "Native Son" and "Black Boy" that made him one of the greatest writers in American history.


CORLEY: Laura Washington, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, says the first lady can reach out and talk more personally about race because she's not an officeholder, and Michelle Obama is also free of the constraints of her husband's early campaigns.

LAURA WASHINGTON: She had to be completely supportive of her husband and get him elected, and that meant stay as far away from race as possible. But that's not who she is. She's a black woman who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, so it's important for her to be able to speak to the audiences who can really relate to her and say, I understand where you've lived because I lived there too.

CORLEY: An example - the first lady's commencement speech at Tuskegee University in Alabama last month. She told graduates there that she and her husband had suffered the slights many African-Americans have.


OBAMA: The folks who cross the street in fear of their safety, the clerks who kept a close eye on us in all those department stores, the people at formal events who assumed we were the help.

CORLEY: Carl Sferrazza Anthony was also struck by the Tuskegee speech. He's a historian for the National First Ladies' Library.

CARL SFERRAZZA ANTHONY: While I would say it was not all about race, that really addresses it in a way that she hasn't before.

CORLEY: Anthony says Obama is also following in the footsteps of other first ladies who've become more outspoken during the waning days of an administration. And during her closing remarks in Chicago, Mrs. Obama told the graduates she was counting on them to help set the record straight about their community.


OBAMA: Graduates starting today, it is your job to make sure that no one ever again is surprised by who we are and where we come from.


CORLEY: And the American people shouldn't be surprised to hear the first lady speak out more often herself while she remains in the White House over the next year-and-a-half. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.
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