President Barack Obama gives his commencement address to the 2016 graduating class of Howard University in Washington, May 7, 2016.
President Barack Obama gives his commencement address to the 2016 graduating class of Howard University in Washington, May 7, 2016.

President Barack Obama delivered a rousing commencement speech Saturday at historically black Howard University, telling graduates that race relations have improved over the last three decades but that more work needs to be done.

"America is by almost every measure better than it was when I graduated from college," Obama told the Class of 2016, in looking back to 1983. The nation's first African-American president, however, said racism and inequality persist as he noted disparities in unemployment, pay and the criminal justice system.  

He also told the graduates in Washington that if they want to see change, they cannot "sleepwalk through life" but must actively participate in the democratic system.

“In 2012, nearly two out of three African-Americans turned out [to vote]. And then in 2014, only two in five turned out to vote. You don’t think that made a difference in terms of the Congress I've got to deal with?” he asked.

The president told young people they had no excuses not to vote.

“You don’t have to risk your life to cast a ballot; other people already did that for you,” he said as he urged the 2,300 graduates to vote not just for president, but in every election.  

Societal improvements

The president said today's college graduates are better positioned than at any other time to address outstanding problems.

“Since the year I graduated, the poverty rate is down. ... American cities have undergone a renaissance. There are more women in the workforce. They are earning more money.  The dropout rate by-African Americans was cut by almost 60 percent,” Obama said.

The president was also awarded an honorary doctor of science degree during the commencement ceremony.  

Ciearra Jefferson celebrates her graduation with h
Ciearra Jefferson celebrates her graduation with her class after President Barack Obama spoke at Howard University's commencement exercises in Washington, May 7, 2016.

Yetunde Akinola, who graduated Saturday with a master's degree in psychology, said the ceremony held special significance.

"The Class of 2016 celebrated with the FIRST African-American in his last term as our United States president," she said. "Howard University is known for many great achievements. However, this is one for the books!"

Faculty member Adedoyin Kalejaiye of Howard's College of Medicine echoed those sentiments.

"It was an immense honor to have President Obama as our commencement speaker. ... He serves as an example of how far our nation has come, and his words today pointed us towards areas where our continued pursuit of excellence can advance our communities even better," she said.

Saturday's speech was the first of three commencement addresses the president has on his agenda.

The president is scheduled to speak May 15 at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Then on June 2, he will addresse graduates at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado.

VOA's Jesusemen Oni contributed to this report.