Comparing the U.S. civil rights era to South Africans’ struggles against apartheid, first lady Michelle Obama told a Johannesburg audience Saturday that she and President Obama attained the White House because of the bravery of the “Little Rock Nine” students in 1957.
She also urged young people to follow her example and ignore “the haters” in society.
“I know that I stand here today as first lady of the United States of America — and my husband is president — because of those nine young men and women in Little Rock, Ark.,” Mrs. Obama said. “All these years later, so many of us are still benefitting from the sacrifices they made.”
Speaking to about 200 young adults at a forum in downtown Johannesburg, Mrs. Obama urged South African youths to be inspired by the example of former President Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years during racist white rule. She said the anti-apartheid efforts that arose with student protests in South Africa 37 years ago had many similarities to the civil rights struggle in the U.S.
“Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, thousands of students led marches and protests against unfair laws that said that black people and white people had to attend separate schools, drink from separate water fountains, and that black people had to sit at the back of public buses,” Mrs. Obama said.
“And when those laws were finally struck down, a small number of black children began attending the all-white schools, including nine young men and women who became the very first black students at an all-white school in Little Rock, Ark.
“They weren’t rich, and they certainly weren’t powerful. But these young people decided to face down bullets and beatings and abuse because they desperately wanted an education worthy of their potential.”
As she did with an audience of young people in Senegal, Mrs. Obama compared her own childhood in Chicago with the economic conditions of families in Africa.
“When I was growing up, my family didn’t have much money,” she said. “Neither of my parents had the chance to go to college. And let me tell you, there were plenty of people who doubted whether a girl with my background had what it took to succeed.
“See, but here’s the thing — I made a choice. I decided not to listen to the doubters and the haters. Instead, I decided to prove them wrong. So here’s what I did: I poured myself into my education.”
Mrs. Obama said to succeed, young people must avoid getting caught up in “distractions” such as reality TV shows and parties.
“Maybe you have folks in your life who doubt that you have what it takes to succeed, who tell you that you’re not good enough or smart enough to achieve your dreams,” she said. “And let me tell you, I know a little bit about that, because that’s what happened to me. And I kept on working until I got my law degree from one of the best universities in my country.”
She said students might not be able to control their family situation, the quality of their school or how others treat them.
“But you can control whether you do your homework each night,” she said.