Michelle Obama was born a year shy of the 1963 March on Washington but has a tangible tie to the day in her background. She graduated from Chicago’s Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, which was named after one of the speakers at the iconic March.
Obama honored Young’s memory Tuesday at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, showing a documentary about the National Urban League leader to a predominantly African American gathering of middle and high school students from the District and Virginia on the eve of the March 50th anniversary.
In brief remarks before the film at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, she challenged them to continue what their elders began and to remember the men and women involved in the civil rights movement.
"We are here because of that struggle," Obama said. "I'm here here because of that struggle. Even though you may think you have some struggles, your paths are a whole lot easier because of what these men and women did."
Young served as the executive director of the NUL in the 1960s and was one of the few blacks who held sway with Fortune 500 chief executives and leading politicians.
Vernon Jordan, the lawyer and businessman who led the Urban League in the 1970s, describes Young in the documentary as taking a different approach from other civil rights leaders of the time. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in the streets marching. Thurgood Marshall was challenging segregation in the courts.
“Whitney was in the board room,” Jordan says in the documentary, which was produced by Bonnie Boswell, a filmmaker and Young's niece. "The Powerbroker: Whitney Young's Fight for Civil Rights" will re-air on PBS this week.
Obama said she watched the film Monday night and found it inspirational.
"It is important in this position to remember that history and how much work goes into making change," she said.
Her decision to highlight Young, who is not as well-known as King or the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins, brings attention to a leader who was sometimes controversial. His more conservative, business-minded philosophy ran counter to the militant strains of the civil rights movement.
“You don’t get black power by chanting it,” Young says in a clip in the documentary. “You get it by doing what the other groups have done. The Irish kept quiet. They didn’t shout Irish power …. They kept their mouths shut and took over the police department of New York City.”
Obama shared a different quotation from Young with the students, "It is better to be prepared for an opportunity and not have one than to have an opportunity and not be prepared." Then she admonished them that their focus should be their education, saying she and her husband had no idea they would some day become president and first lady but were prepared.
"There is nothing more important you all need to be doing right now," she said. "It ain't rapping. It ain't dancing. It is learning to read and write in an outstanding way. That is your job."
The first lady will host a reception celebrating the anniversary of the March on Washington Tuesday night with the president.