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Michelle Obama’s last speech as first lady was a tearful, impassioned defense of American diversity

Michelle Obama Delivers Final Speech At The White House Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Michelle Obama’s final speech as first lady Friday was, on the surface, an innocuous event — it honored the national school counselor of the year.

But wrapped in a speech ostensibly about the importance of supporting kids’ dreams, Obama seemed to be making an emotional, implicit criticism of President-elect Donald Trump’s vision for America.

“This country belongs to you — to all of you, from every background and walk of life,” Obama said in a speech addressed to the young people of America. She singled out immigrants, the children of immigrants, children from poor families, and children of every faith, saying, “Our glorious diversity, our diversities of faiths and colors and creeds, that is not a threat to who we are,” she said. “It makes us who we are.”

Just as she did on the campaign trail, Obama — who became one of Hillary Clinton’s most effective surrogates — never mentioned Trump’s name. Her speech was ostensibly about the importance of education and the caring work school counselors do.

But, like her speech at the Democratic National Convention, which claimed the mantle of “family values” for Democrats, her final message from the White House conspicuously stressed the virtues of diversity in what seemed to be an implicit contrast to much of Trump’s rhetoric.

“Do not let anyone make you feel like you don’t matter, or you don’t have a place in our American story,” Obama said. “Because you do, and you have a right to be exactly who you are.”

“But I also want to be very clear: This right isn’t just handed to you. 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.”

She ended her speech, tearfully, with a plea not to be afraid — a word she had used earlier in reference to the stress of college applications but which, at the end of the address, may have been speaking to much larger anxieties.

“I want our young people to know that they matter, that they belong,” Obama said. “So don’t be afraid. You hear me? Young people, don’t be afraid. Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered. Empower yourselves with a good education. Then get out there and use that education to build a country worthy of your boundless promise. Lead by example with hope, never fear. And know that I will be with you, rooting for you and working to support you for the rest of my life.”

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