Barack Obama leans, ever so slightly, to his left as he tells students to brush aside their worries about controversy. The former President urges these high schoolers to speak up, fight for justice and emulate the work of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and let history, not headlines, judge.
“If you are speaking on behalf of social justice, then by definition there’s going to be some controversy because if it wasn’t controversial, then somebody would have already fixed it,” Obama says in a video scheduled to be released Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination. “Dr. King was controversial, but he studied and thought and crafted what he had to say. He knew, when he spoke, he was expressing a truth as well as he could know it.”
Obama offered that message during a Monday meeting with students from Washington’s Ron Brown College Preparatory High School, the city’s all-male public high school that in 2016 grew out of the President’s effort to empower young men from minority backgrounds. TIME got an early look at the resulting video, which the Obama Foundation plans to release Wednesday.
Rep. John Lewis, whom Obama credits with drawing him into public life, joined the nation’s first black president for the conversation about King and civil rights. Lewis, a King friend and a civil rights icon who was almost killed during the Blood Sunday march in Selma, Alabama, is the last living speaker from King’s 1963 March on Washington.
“There were some people who suggested my speech was too extreme, it was too radical,” Lewis tells the students. “But I felt what I had to say was important to be said: Black people in the South couldn’t register to vote simply because of the color of their skin.”
In the black-and-white video, also Lewis speaks of a former Ku Klux Klan member who beat him in 1961 but sought him out years later to seek forgiveness. “That’s the power of the way of peace and love,” Lewis says. “You respect the dignity and the worth of every human being.”
Since leaving office in January 2017, Obama has largely kept a low profile in keeping with tradition. As part of his foundation, he relocated the elements of his White House efforts to narrow the opportunity gaps between young white men and young minority men. Monday’s session was part of that effort, now known as My Brother’s Keeper Alliance.
“Being on the right side of history isn’t always popular. And it isn’t always easy,” Obama tells Lewis in the video. “You don’t know when things are going to break your way. You don’t know whether your labors will deliver.” But, Lewis counters, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just you have a moral obligation to do something, to say something. Dr. King inspired us to do just that.”