Michelle Obama on the Future: 'History Is Made by the People Who Show Up for the Fight'

"The story of progress in this country is written by the people who believe what should happen actually can happen," the former first lady said in a new interview

Michelle Obama Visits The Tacoma Public Library
Former First Lady Michelle Obama. Photo: Jim Bennett/Getty

Michelle Obama says in a new interview that while 2020 has been filled with uncertainty and injustice, she's hopeful it’s also served as an important wake-up call for Americans to make their voices heard in their communities.

The former first lady, 56, spoke about the importance of voting and standing up for progress in a new interview with Shonda Rhimes for Harper’s Bazaar.

“With everything that’s gone on over these past few months, I know a lot of folks out there have been confused, or scared, or angry, or just plain overwhelmed. And I’ve got to be honest, I count myself among them,” Obama said, echoing a recent commencement speech she gave for the class of 2020.

“Our foundation has been shaken—not just by a pandemic that stole more than 100,000 of our loved ones and sent tens of millions into unemployment, but also by the rumbling of the age-old fault lines of race, class, and power that our country was built on,” she said in her Harper's interview.

“The heartache and frustration that boiled over after the losses of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others has caused a lot of us to grapple with the very essence of who we are—the kind of people we want to be. But even in that, I find hope,” she continued, noting that she believes Americans are learning at younger ages than ever the necessity of pushing back on systems of oppression — which includes channeling “your frustration into our democracy with your vote and your voice.”

Focusing on one example where people were able to come together to make lasting change, Obama reflected in Harper's on the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote and will celebrate its 100th anniversary in August.

“I am thinking about how the story of progress in this country is written by the people who believe what should happen actually can happen,” she told Rhimes. “One hundred years ago, there were plenty of naysayers who thought granting women the right to vote would lead to societal decline. And there were plenty of others who were sympathetic to the cause but dismissed it with an ‘Oh, well, that will never happen.’ "

“But history is made by the people who show up for the fight, even when they know they might not be fully recognized for their contributions,” Obama continued, adding that it was also important to reflect on activists of color who may “not have been fully” welcomed by the larger suffrage movement, like Sojourner Truth and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.

“They kept on working anyway. They weren’t thinking about themselves; they were thinking about their daughters and their granddaughters.”

RELATED VIDEO: Obama Gives Commencement Speech to Class of 2020: 'The World Is Turned Upside Down'

Obama went on to note that one of the many consequences of the novel coronavirus pandemic is that it’s opened many Americans’ eyes to the importance of having “competent leaders in office — leaders who prioritize their citizens’ well-being over their own poll numbers.”

“Voting is so much bigger than one election, one party, or one candidate. It’s great to feel inspired by candidates and the visions they put forth, but it is by no means a prerequisite to casting a ballot,” she said. “Because at the end of the day, someone is going to be making the decisions about how much money your schools get and how tax money is distributed. Voting gives you a say in those matters.”

Since leaving the White House, the former first lady has made voting access a major focus with her When We All Vote initiative — work that has increased relevance amid the coronavirus, she said.

In May, she also launched a new nonpartisan coalition made up of mayors from around the country who will work together to continue to push for safe voting policies, including online voter registration, early in-person voting and mail-in voting.

As she told Rhimes: “Nobody should have to choose between their health and making their voice heard.”

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