By James Salzer and Angela Tuck
Journal-Constitution Staff Writers
After a rough week in Washington, President Barack Obama came to rainy Atlanta on Sunday to be with a friendlier crowd, becoming the first sitting president to give the commencement address at Morehouse College.
The president later attended a fundraiser for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee at the home of Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank.
The commencement crowd roared when the president made his entrance, about an hour after heavy rains had stopped.
Obama urged graduates to think of more than their careers. He told them to be good role models and inspire others, particularly members of the African-American community who need a helping hand.
“Members of the class of 2013, you are the heirs to a great legacy,” he said. “You have within you the same courage; the same strength; the same resolve as the men who came before you.
“That’s what being a Morehouse Man is all about,” the president said. “That’s what being an American is about. Success may not come quickly or easily. But if you strive to do what’s right; if you work harder and dream bigger; if you set an example in your own lives and do your part to help meet the challenges of our time, then I am confident that, together, we will continue the never-ending task of perfecting our union.”
Politics was largely absent during the president’s address, although he made reference to his controversial national health care law while urging graduates who will be going on to medical school to serve the needy.
Obama is still dealing with a Congressional investigation into the Benghazi attacks and criticism of the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups as well as the FBI’s investigation of the Associated Press.
But at Morehouse, he was to speak to a crowd of more than 500 graduates and about 10,000 onlookers who began showing up several hours before the commencement, despite intermittent drenching rain.
Britney Ferguson arrived early to get a front row seat in the family and friends area. The 20-year-old from Hayward, Calif., came to see her brother, Ian Minerve Jr., graduate from Morehouse with his business degree.
“It’s really, really amazing to be here. I’m so happy for my brother,” said the California State University East Bay student. “This inspires me to keep working hard in school so I can graduate and feel success.”
Ferguson’s father got to campus at 3:30 a.m. to save seats for the rest of the family.
“Seeing Obama makes it worth it sitting here in the rain,” she said.
Her cousin, Sally Seow, from Trinidad, is attending her first American graduation.
“Having Obama here makes it that much more special,” she said.
Sean K. Daughtry of Boston, a Morehouse graduate, was in Atlanta to celebrate his 20th class reunion.
“It is a great honor to have our president here and an even greater honor that we are bestowing upon him an honorary degree,” he said. “So we will have a Morehouse man as president.”
Daughtry, 42, is also here to celebrate the presidency of John Wilson, the 11th president of Morehouse. Daughtry worked with Wilson when they were both members of the Greater Boston Morehouse College Alumni Association. At that time, Daughtry said, Wilson helped endow $1 million in funds for the college.
President Obama’s commencement speech at Morehouse marked the first time a sitting president had delivered a commencement address in Georgia since 1938, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke at the University of Georgia.
Obama continues to be a big draw at political fund raisers, which is good news for Democrats struggling to hold control of the Senate.
Nationally, the DSCC has raised more money than its Republican counterpart, but Democrats will struggle to defend seven Democrat-held seats in states won by Republican Mitt Romney in the presidential race last year. Georgia’s Senate seat is open with the retirement of U.S. Sen. Chambliss, but Democrats have yet to recruit a high-profile candidate. U.S. Rep. John Barrow of Augusta elected to remain in the House after discussing a Senate run with the DSCC.