I bring you greetings from the 435 Members of the United States House of Representatives, the 100 Members of the United States Senate, and specifically the 49 Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, led by a dynamic, bold, and courageous young man, Congressman Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, a Morehouse Man – Class of 1995.
I bring you greetings from my wife Vivian and the 730,000 people of the 2nd Congressional District of Georgia, consisting of 29 counties in middle and southwest Georgia, who have allowed me to represent them in Washington for some 26 years;
And, I bring you greetings from our ancestors, and from Morehouse Men — wherever they are —living, dead, or yet to be born!
“This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”
I am grateful for the opportunity to share this great day in your lives. Not just for you graduates, but also for parents and all those who prayed, worked, sacrificed, and supported you so you could reach this milestone. There is no greater honor than to be asked to be a commencement speaker; and for me to be asked to be commencement speaker on the 50th anniversary of my graduation from Morehouse. But I am not so vain, nor am I so foolish as to believe that this great assemblage of people has come here at 8:00 this morning to hear Sanford Bishop speak!
I know better! I know you are here to either receive your degree or witness a relative, special friend, or student receive his degree. And if you work at the college, you had no choice but to be here! If you are in one of the reunion classes, particularity the Class of 1968, you are here to celebrate your 50th class reunion and to meet and greet your classmates, to fellowship, reminisce, and reflect on those long past years when we were all a few pounds a lighter, in better health, had a full head of hair, and the hair we had was black and not gray.
A funeral director friend of mine told me that a good commencement speaker should consider himself like the body at an old fashioned wake: they need you for the party, but they don’t expect you to say much. So I know my place here and I promise you I will be brief!
Class of 2018, we are proud of you! Just a little while ago, you were starting elementary school, and now you are about to become Morehouse College graduates. Many of you have defied the odds. Many of you have had to struggle. I am proud of you and so thrilled for your families who sit out there beaming with pride and joy that you have made it to this day. You make your families and those who care about you proud! They have had some sleepless nights and some uncertain days. But they had faith in almighty God and in you that you would succeed and not falter in your pursuit of a baccalaureate degree and a higher education.
Today, you are joining the ranks of generations of men spanning 151 years who have been molded and shaped into Morehouse Men by an institution with a rich history and deep commitment to developing Black men, so as to empower them to change the world.
During your matriculation here, you have been infused, voluntarily and involuntarily, with a confluence of ideas and forces by faculty, mentors, fellow students, friends, events, experiences, circumstances – intellectual and non-intellectual, academic and nonacademic – that have impacted you in countless ways that are positive, to mold and shape you into quintessential Morehouse Men: WELL READ, WELL SPOKEN, WELL TRAVELED, WELL DRESSED, AND WELL BALANCED… Men who know that from you there is, in the words of Dr. Bennie Mays, “An air of expectation!”
We expect you to do well! We expect you to excel. And, we expect you to be confident. But, we expect your confidence not be “conceit” but rather modest self-esteem. And we expect you to give back selflessly to your community and to the world community.
Howard Thurman, Class of 1923, said: “Over the heads of her students Morehouse holds a crown that she challenges them to grow tall enough to wear!” Well, today, Class of 2018, you have grown a foot taller, but you still have a way to go before you can claim that crown.
At the 1948 commencement, a young man named Martin Luther King Jr. sat where you now sit, waiting to receive his degree. He had been shaped and nurtured by the forces at Morehouse but had no earthly idea how God had ordered his steps to impact mankind and change the world. Twenty years later in 1968 we, who today celebrate our 50th and Golden Anniversary Commencement, sat where you now sit, barely a month after Dr. King was killed, and forever changed by the events of April 4th 1968.
But wait! Put a pin right there! With your sanctified Morehouse imagination, let’s roll back the clock and turn back the calendar to September 1964, when the Class of 1968 entered Morehouse. Dr. Benjamin Mays was President, Dr. Brailsford Brazeal, Academic Dean, and Dr. Fred C. Lofton was Dean of Students.
Freshman week, we gathered in Sale Hall Chapel to hear Dr. Lofton introduce us to Morehouse. He told us that Morehouse was a special place, that Morehouse produced philosopher kings, the talented 10th – the movers and shakers of society, men like Martin Luther King Jr. who would change the world.
Not every young man who entered Morehouse, he said, was destined to be a Morehouse Man. It took hard work, discipline, study, prayer, and perseverance. He told us about a student from last year who he called “Spelman Willie” who spent his time at Spelman rather than in his studies. “He’s not back this year, and the one who goofed off and was overtaken by various and sundry other distractions — he’s not back this year.” Then he said: “Look at the one sitting next to you right now, chances are he won’t be back next year!” A few of us made it back.
Our class entered at a time of great challenge, controversy, and cataclysmic change. We entered just months after the March on Washington and Dr. King’s “I have a Dream Speech”; just months after the Ku Klux Klan bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama killed four little innocent black girls; just months after Dr. King aroused the conscience of the nation with his letter from the Birmingham jail which brought about the 1964 Civil Rights Bill; just months after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination based on race, creed, color, religion, national origin in public accommodations and employment, and enforcing desegregation of schools. That was preceded just a couple of years before by students sitting-in at segregated lunch counters all across the South and getting on buses and taking rides for freedom. It was a time of turmoil, a time of change, and a time of division.
A month after we entered Morehouse, Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and the next year he led the campaign in Selma, Alabama that brought about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that made it possible for African Americans to be elected to public office, all across the South. Dr. Mays, recognizing the transformative power of Dr. King’s work and his receipt of the Nobel Prize, invited him to the campus for a convocation where he met and addressed the student body and the Atlanta community and received an honorary degree from his Alma Mater. We met him, we were inspired by him, and we followed him!
Now let’s go back, and take that pin out, back to April 4th 1968. Dr. Mays is now retired. Dr. Gloster is now president. We finish dinner in the Mays Hall dining room and go into the student lounge to watch the 6 o’clock news. We see and hear our hero tell us that he has been to the mountain top and he has seen the promised land. “I may not get there with you,” he says, “but I know that one day, we as a people, will get to the promised land!” The news goes off at 7:00 pm, and immediately thereafter, there is breaking news that he has been shot! All hell broke loose! The community around the Morehouse campus and across America erupted! White owned businesses went up in flames, and, as Student Government President, I, along with other campus leaders, sprang into action to protect our campus buildings from damage and destruction.
Five days later, hundreds of us went to the first funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church, then walked behind the mule drawn wagon bearing Dr. King’s body with Reverend Hosea Williams and tens of thousands of people, from Auburn Avenue to the Century Campus where we are today, for the large public funeral attended by celebrities, politicians, and dignitaries from all across the world. As the thousands filed into the campus from the Fair Street gate, I ran to the dormitory to put on my Glee Club blazer and returned to the stage to sing at his funeral. Dr. Mays gave the eulogy and, among other things, he said: “Too bad, you say, that Martin Luther King Jr. died so young. I feel that way too. But as I have said many times before, it isn’t how long one lives, but how well. It’s what one accomplishes for mankind that matters….”
That Morehouse experience caused me and countless others of my generation to commit our lives to keeping Dr. King’s dream alive and making it a reality. I became a civil rights lawyer, which led me to the Georgia State House, State Senate, and to Congress, to use the political process to improve people’s lives.
Now to the Class of 2018: you entered Morehouse in a different era. There were persistent problems, but when you came, it was during the 2nd term of the first African American President of the United States. Building on the work of Dr. King, it appeared as if the nation had looked beyond “color” to “competence.” The world had entered and was well into the digital age and many believed that we had moved to a post-racial era. Then 2016 happened, and 45 was elected. We had trouble from Russia, across Europe, North Korea, the Middle East, and across the globe. Turmoil. Protests, and growing unrest escalating across America. Hostility, division, mistrust, continued violence, disregard for truth, disregard for character values; words of racial and national denigration flowing rapidly across cyber space, emanating from the White House. While the Statue of Liberty still bears the inscription, “Give me your tired, your poor, your masses yearning to be free,” those in power at the White House want to shut the door. The country has taken a turn toward a second reconstruction – an undoing of the gains for humanity achieved in the last 50 years. This is the world you will be entering. You must take up the struggle. But have no fear! Your Morehouse experience has prepared you. Your academic preparation, your discipline, your persistence, your faith, and your commitment to humanity have prepared you. You have the tools!
The poet R. L. Sharp says:
and clowns that caper in sawdust rings,
and common folks, like you and me,
are builders for eternity?
Each is given a list of rules;
a shapeless mass; a bag of tools.
And each must fashion, ere life is flown,
A stumbling block, or a stepping stone.”
Josiah G. Holland said:
Strong minds, great hearts, true faith and ready hands;
Men whom the lust of office does not kill;
Men whom the spoils of office can not buy;
Men who possess opinions and a will;
Men who have honor; men who will not lie;
Men who can stand before a demagogue
And damn his treacherous flatteries without winking!
Tall men, sun-crowned, who live above the fog
In public duty, and in private thinking;
For while the rabble, with their thumb-worn creeds,
Their large professions and their little deeds,
Mingle in selfish strife, lo! Freedom weeps,
Wrong rules the land and waiting Justice sleeps.”