NAACP Chairman Julian Bond
GW Commencement on the National Mall
May 18, 2008
President Knapp, members of the faculty, administrators, parents, family members, friends – and most importantly, graduates – it is a high honor to have been asked to speak here today.
Ceremonies like this one inevitably call to mind my first commencement, my graduation from high school many years ago. The speaker then was the late Dr. Mordecai Johnson, President of Howard University. He spoke – without notes – in the hot afternoon sun – for more than an hour. As I listened I thought, “Someday I’ll get a chance to do that.”
Luckily for you, this isn’t it.
It is, however, the occasion for congratulations to you and reflections from me.
I am the grandson of a slave.
My grandfather was born in Kentucky in 1863, and because of this, freedom didn’t come for him until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in 1865.
He and his mother were property, like a horse or a chair. As a young girl, she had been given away as a wedding gift to a new bride, and when that bride became pregnant, her husband – that’s my great-grandmother’s master and owner – exercised his right to take his wife’s slave as his mistress. That union produced two children, one of them my grandfather.
Your presence here attests to the value you place on education and your willingness to make sacrifices to obtain it. The same was true for my grandfather.
At age 15, barely able to read or write, he hitched his tuition – a steer – to a rope and walked 100 miles across Kentucky to Berea College, and the College took him in.
When he graduated from Berea thirteen years later, the college asked him to deliver the commencement address.
He said then:
“The pessimist from his corner looks out on the world of wickedness and sin and blinded by all that is good or hopeful in the condition and progress of the human race, bewails the present state of affairs and predicts woeful things for the future.
In every cloud he beholds a destructive storm, in every flash of lightning an omen of evil, and in every shadow that falls across his path a lurking foe.
He forgets that the clouds also bring life and hope, that lightning purifies the atmosphere, that shadow and darkness prepare for sunshine and growth, and that hardships and adversity nerve the race, as the individual, for greater efforts and grander victories.” [i]
“Greater efforts and grander victories.” That was the promise the generation born in slavery made a century and a half ago. That was the promise made by the generation that won the great world war for democracy six decades ago. That was the promise made by those who brought democracy to America’s darkest corners four decades ago.
And that is the promise you must seek to honor as you leave these ceremonies and enter the world beyond.
You graduate at an historic time and in an historic place.
Forty-five years ago more than a quarter of a million people gathered here on this mall to march for jobs and freedom and to hear the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King tell the nation of his dream.
Black people’s passage to this country was on slave ships. Their passage to citizenship occurred on that day in this place.
I worked then for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as its Communications Director. SNCC, founded only three years before the March, was the youngest sponsoring organization. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), whose Board I now chair, was the oldest, dating back to 1909.
As a representative of the youngest organization, my job at the March on Washington was to bring coca-colas to the movie stars. My most compelling memory of that day was giving a coke to Sammy Davis Jr. and having him say, Thanks, kid.”
The first speaker that day was the 74 year-old labor leader, A. Philip Randolph, who had devoted his life to jobs and freedom. The march had been his idea, and he later called it “the most beautiful and glorious day” of his life.
The last speaker, of course, was Dr. King. His talk that day cemented him and the civil rights movement in America’s consciousness.
It was also here in Washington – at the National Cathedral – where Dr. King, on March 31, 1968, five years after the March on Washington and forty years ago, delivered his last Sunday sermon. Four days later he would be assassinated in Memphis. He now has been dead longer than he lived.
Today we have encased the man and the movement in myth. As King biographer Taylor Branch recently said, “To see King and his cohorts as anything less than modern founders of democracy – even as racial healers and reconcilers – is to diminish them under the spell of myth.” [ii]
I hope, graduates, that as you contemplate what you receive when you are handed your diplomas, you will think of these “modern founders of democracy.” And of the tens of thousands of others who experienced the tragedy and triumph that is the history of our national struggle to come to grips with the unresolved problem of race.
And I hope you will understand that this struggle has everything to do with you.
When the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in 1954 in the case called Brown v. Board of Education, a vast army of nonviolent protestors rose up to challenge segregation’s morality as well.
Students like you began embracing jail without bail when they sat down to stand up for their rights. They attacked segregated interstate travel with their bodies and segregated ballot boxes across the South as well.
Through this period the federal government helped only reluctantly, and then only when white property or people seemed at risk. State and local government worked in active concert with white terrorists, and the movement had few allies.
But from the first it was a people’s movement, made up of ordinary women and men. The cumulative acts of their passive resistance became our modern democracy’s finest hour. By 1965, Jim Crow was legally dead.
A vote-less people had voted with their bodies and their feet and paved the way for other social protest. The anti-war movement of the 1960s drew its earliest soldiers from the southern freedom army. The reborn movement for women’s rights took many of its cues and much of its momentum from the southern movement for civil rights.
Most of those who made the movement were not famous; they were faceless. They were not notable; they were nameless – marchers with tired feet, protestors beaten back by billy clubs and fire hoses, unknown women and men who risked job and home and life.
As we honor you graduates today for what you have achieved, so should you honor them for what they achieved for you.
They helped you learn how to be free.
They gave you the freedom to enter the larger world protected from its worst abuses.
If you are black or female or gay, their struggles prevent your race or gender or sexual orientation from being the arbitrary handicap today it was then.
If you belong to an ethnic minority or if you are disabled, your ethnicity or disability cannot now be used to discriminate against you as it was then.
If you are Catholic or Muslim or Jewish, your faith cannot be an impediment to your success.
As you grow older, because of what they did then, you will be able to work as long as you are able.
Your job – your responsibility – is to make these protections more secure, to expand them for your generation and those who will soon follow you. In doing so, you will make King’s legacy live.
Our future as a nation depends on our willingness to continue to reach into the racial cleavage that defines American society and to change the racial contours of our world.
In 1954, the federal government’s brief in Brown argued that school desegregation was a Cold War imperative, a necessary weapon to win America’s battles overseas. Current events give us the same imperative – to prove to friend and foe alike that our commitment to justice is real.
Wherever you may go from here – if there are hungry minds or hungry bodies nearby, you can feed them. If there are precincts of the powerless poor nearby, you can organize them. If there is racial or ethnic injustice, you can attack and destroy it.
By this ritual today, you are about to be officially enrolled in an elite within our nation – the community of educated women and men. As you go forward from this place, we all hope that you will do well – but I hope you will also do good.
You must place interest in principle above interest on principal.
An early attempt at ending illiteracy in the South developed a slogan that was also their method – “Each One Teach One” until all could read.
Perhaps your slogan could be “Each One Reach One”.
Each one reach one until all are registered and voting.
Each one reach one until all are productive citizens of our world.
Each one reach one until the weak are strong and the sick are healed.
Each one reach one until your problem is mine, until mine is yours.
Just as it is not enough not to do evil, it is not enough just to do good.
It may be helpful to think of your task in this way:
Two men sitting by a river see, to their great shock, a helpless baby floating by. They rescue the child, and to their horror, another baby soon comes floating down the stream. When that child is pulled to safety, another baby comes along. As one man plunges into the river a third time, the other rushes upstream.
“Come back!” yells the man in the water. “We must save this baby!”
“You save it,” the other yells back. “I’m going to find out who is throwing babies in the river and make them stop!”
Racial minorities serve society like the canaries that miners used to carry to warn them when the underground air was becoming too toxic to breathe.
But too many people want to put gas masks on the canaries instead of eliminating the poison in the air. Too many want to put life preservers on the babies, instead of stopping them from being thrown into a treacherous, dangerous stream.
As you aspire to greater efforts and grander victories, you must be prepared to offer not just love, but justice, not gas masks but pure air, not life preservers, but an end to throwing babies away.
This is not easy work, but you know what hard work is – that is what brought you here today.
I urge you to continue to do and be your best – and to apply your talents not just to bettering yourselves, not just to doing social service but also to bringing social justice.
The possibilities are immense and so are the rewards.
Historian Howard Zinn wrote the civil rights movement proved:
“… that even if people lack the customary attributes of power -- money, political authority, physical force – as did the black people of the Deep South, there is a power that can be created out of spent-up indignation, courage, and the inspiration of a common cause, and that if enough people put their minds and bodies into that cause, they can win. It is a phenomenon recorded again and again in the history of popular movements against injustice all over the world…”
“Not to believe in the possibility of dramatic change is to forget that things have changed, not enough, of course, but enough to show what is possible. We have been surprised before in history. We can be surprised again. Indeed, we can do the surprising. …”
“The reward for participating in a movement for social justice is not the prospect of future victory. It is the exhilaration of standing together with other people, taking risks together, enjoying small triumphs and enduring disenheartening setbacks – together.” [iii]
If my grandfather were here, I think he would ask now, “What did you do with your freedom?” Some day someone will ask you – “What did you do with your education?”
Be sure you have an answer – for your family, your
nation, your world. They’re counting on you.
(Julian Bond has been Chairman of the NAACP Board of Directors since February 1998. He is a distinguished Professor in the School of Government at American University in Washington, DC, and a Professor in the History Department at the University of Virginia.)
[i] Commencement Address by James Bond, Berea College Reporter (June 1892).
[ii] Taylor Branch, “King’s Nonviolence: Asleep after 40 Years?” March 31, 2008.
[iii] Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, 1994, Beacon Press.