Michelle Obama extolled the value of the country’s “glorious diversity” in an emotional address on Friday, using her last speech as first lady to reiterate the outgoing administration’s message that immigrants and religious minorities add to America’s strengths.
At an annual event honoring school counselors in the White House’s East Room, Obama urged young people to take pride in their varying backgrounds and seek an education to better the country. She teared up at the end of her remarks, describing being first lady as the “greatest honor of my life.”
“As I end my time in the White House, I can think of no better message to send to our young people in my last official remarks as first lady,” Obama said. “For all the young people in this room and those who are watching, know that this country belongs to you, to all of you, from every background and walk of life.”
“Our glorious diversity, our diversity as the faiths and colors and creeds, that is not a threat to who we are it makes us who we are,” she said, after citing immigration and religious diversity as proud American traditions. “To the young people here, and the young people out there, do not ever let anyone make you feel like you don’t matter, or like you don’t have a place in our American story, because you do, and you have a right to be exactly who you are.”
“But I also want to be very clear,” she continued. “This right isn’t just handed to you. No, this right has to be earned every single day. You cannot take your freedoms for granted. Just like generations who have come before you, you have to do your part to preserve and protect those freedoms, and that starts right now, when you’re young. Right now, you need to be preparing yourself to add your voice to our national conversation.”
Obama did not mention the election or Donald Trump in her remarks, but the speech was an implicit rebuke of the message that carried the president-elect to his surprise victory. Trump campaigned on a hard-line promise to curtail immigration and at points disparaged minority groups, including Muslims and Mexicans.
Hillary Clinton, whom the Obamas supported and Trump defeated in a major upset, had run on a platform that also focused on promoting diversity, as encapsulated by her slogan, “Stronger Together.” Some people see her loss as a rejection of that ideology.
Michelle Obama, though, remains hugely popular, and her fans cite her characteristic restraint in responding to political opponents as a reason for admiring her. She coined the oft-used phrase “when they go low, we go high” to describe her philosophy toward reacting to attacks during the 2016 campaign.
Obama’s speech on Friday, at an event about education, focused largely on speaking to students and praising the counselors there to be honored. Its underlying message, though, was still political.
“Lead by example with hope. Never fear,” Obama said to young people in the audience. “And know that I will be with you, rooting for you and working to support you for the rest of my life, and that is true, I know, for every person who is here today, and for educators and advocates all across this nation who get up every day and work their hearts out to lift up our young people.”
Her closing message was “thank you”: “Thank you for everything you do for our kids, and for our country,” Obama said. “Being your first lady has been the greatest honor of my life, and I hope I’ve made you proud.”