NAACP Chair Julian Bond's Commencement Remarks to Class of 2007
Loyola press release - May 17, 2007
Video of the following speech can be viewed at http://www.loyno.edu/ia/publicaffairs/commencement.html
Loyola University 2007 Commencement
May 12, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Julian Bond
President Wildes, members of the faculty, administrators, parents, family members, friends – and most importantly, graduates – it is a high honor to have been asked to speak 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 almost two hours. 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
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 and write, he hitched his tuition, a steer, to a rope, and walked 100 miles across
Sixteen years later he graduated, and 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
“Hardships and adversity.”
You already have faced “hardships and adversity” that none of you could have foreseen when you first arrived here.
Your time at Loyola was interrupted by Hurricane Katrina, which would visit upon
Mercifully, your campus sustained relatively minimal damage, but that semester was canceled. Although your time on campus was interrupted, your education was not. Whether you took the time off, enrolled in another university, or worked to aid the city and its victims – you learned valuable lessons.
“Greater efforts and grander victories.”
Through “great efforts” – your own and those of your incredibly dedicated staff and faculty, 60 per cent of whose homes were lost or sustained significant damage – you already have achieved “greater victories.”
The victory of determination over despair, of coming together over falling apart, the victory of resilience over retreat.
And now you have earned your degrees.
As you leave here, I hope you will remember the people who were the most vulnerable before the storm and are still suffering in its aftermath.
The woman, waiting with her bundles of possessions beside a freeway overpass, repeating over and over, “I am a citizen of the
Clarice Butler, who worked for 28 years as a nurses’ assistant, described being stranded on the interstate:
“They tried to kill us. When you keep people on top of the interstate for five days, with no food and water, that’s killing people. . . . Helicopters at night shining a light down on us. They know we was there. Policemen, the army, the whole nine yards, ambulance passing us up like we wasn’t nothing. . . . We was treated worse than an animal.”[iii]
She is right about that.
The Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in keeping with the mission statement of the national organization, “Compassion and mercy for those who cannot speak for themselves,” evacuated all 263 of their
By then, Sunday morning, it would be too late.
“Though more than 100,000 residents had no way to get out of the city on their own, New Orleans had no real evacuation plan, save to tell people to go the Superdome and wait for buses”.[v]
So thousands would be stranded, and they would be overwhelmingly black and poor.
So from the outset Katrina was about race. We would expect the story of Katrina to be suffused with race.
In 1935, my parents were living in
The same, of course, could be said of Katrina. A case in point is
Now, as it appears increasingly likely that the Lower Ninth Ward will not be rebuilt, it can be said that Katrina, like lynching, destroy[ed] the work of generations in a single day.”
The struggle for equality has defined
A third of a million slaves – one-half of the state’s population – under- girded
By 1840 there were more than 23,000 slaves in
In the modern civil rights era,
The crisis was triggered, of course, by the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.
When the Supreme Court outlawed segregation, 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, their struggles prevent your race or gender 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 those protections more secure, to expand them for your generation and those who will soon follow you.
Our future as a nation depends on our willingness to continue to reach into the racial cleavage that defines American society and 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
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 also that you will do good.
As Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, Superior General of the Society of Jesus has written, Jesuit higher education must always ask:
“… For whom? For what? The answer to those questions will always be related to the common good and the progress of human society.”[ix]
Don’t let the din of the dollar deafen you to the quiet desperation of the dispossessed. Don’t let the glare of greed blind you to the many in need.
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.
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.
Just as the Katrina crisis played out against a racial history, it also had a more specific historical antecedent: the
One year after the Great Flood of 1927, Huey Long launched his first campaign for governor of
“. . . It is here under this oak where Evangeline waited for her lover, Gabriel, who never came. This oak is an immortal spot, made so by Longfellow’s poem, but Evangeline is not the only one who has waited here in disappointment. Where are the schools that you have waited for your children to have, that have never come? Where are the roads and the highways that you send your money to build, that are no nearer now than ever before? Where are the institutions to care for the sick and disabled? Evangeline wept bitter tears in her disappointment, but it lasted only through one lifetime. Your tears in this country, around this oak, have lasted for generations. Give me the chance to dry the eyes of those who still weep here.”
“To dry the eyes of those who still weep”-- that is the challenge we all must accept 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 bringing social justice. Congratulations!
(Julian Bond has been Chairman of the NAACP Board of Directors since February 1998. He is a distinguished Professor in the
[i] Commencement Address by James Bond,
[ii] The Nation, at 17 (Jan. 2, 2006)
[iii] Barbara Ransby, “Katrina, Black Women, and the Deadly Discourse on Black Poverty in
[iv] Douglas Brinkley, The Great Deluge at 34.
[v] Evan Thomas, “How Bush Blew It,” Newsweek, (Sept. 19, 2005).
[vi] Horace Mann and Julia Bond, Adam Fairclough, ed., The Star Creek Papers, at xxx,
[vii] Kristen Lavell and Joe Feagin, “Hurricane Katrina: The Race and Class Debate,” Monthly Review, Vol. 58, No. 3 (July – August 2006).
[ix] Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S. J., “The