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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

New Orleans, Louisiana

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 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 and 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.

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

victories.”[i]

“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 New Orleans the greatest physical damage to a major American city in history. Katrina hit the day school was to have started in August 2005.

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 United States.”[ii]

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 New Orleans’ shelter’s dogs and cats. They were safely in Houston before a mandatory evacuation order would be issued for the city. [iv]

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]

New Orleans was 63 percent black, half of whom lived below the poverty level. More than one in three black households – and nearly three in five poor black households – lacked a vehicle. Among white households, only 15 percent were without a car.

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. America, after all, unscrambled spells “I am race”. That could well be the tagline for Katrina.

In 1935, my parents were living in Louisiana when a neighbor’s cousin, Jerome Wilson, was lynched. My father’s writing about the lynching and the family was published 60 years later, with an introduction by historian Adam Fairclough. Fairclough writes that my father “stopped short of arguing that lynching was a deliberate effort to dispossess black landholders. . . . He did show, however, that lynching could destroy the work of several generations in a single day.”[vi]

The same, of course, could be said of Katrina. A case in point is New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. The Lower Ninth, one of the most heavily damaged areas of the city, was almost exclusively black. Although its poverty rate was higher than the city as a whole, so was its rate of home ownership. Almost 60 percent of the Lower Ninth’s residents owned their own homes, compared with 47 percent in the city as a whole, partly as a result of homes being passed down through generations in this deeply rooted community.

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 New Orleans and Louisiana as it has defined the rest of the South. Although its origins as a French colony and its cultural diversity have made Louisiana different from other Southern states, they share a racial history of slavery, segregation, and white supremacy.

A third of a million slaves – one-half of the state’s population – under- girded Louisiana’s antebellum economy. “Slave trading was a daily, bloody, highly visible public affair of New Orleans life.”[vii]

By 1840 there were more than 23,000 slaves in New Orleans and almost as many free blacks. By Reconstruction, “more people in both the ‘white’ and the ‘black’ populations had ancestors in the other racial group than in any other U.S. city.”[viii] Although free people of color had some legal rights that distinguished them from the enslaved, all blacks were subordinated, no matter their class status.

In the modern civil rights era, New Orleans felt the glare of the national media during the school integration crisis of 1960. High school students rioted, whites boycotted, and little Ruby Bridges attended school all alone.

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 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 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.

After Katrina, Loyola University instituted the ‘Each One Reach One’ campaign to get every member of its community to recommend a student to apply for the class of 2010. As you leave Loyola, you can continue and expand 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.

Just as the Katrina crisis played out against a racial history, it also had a more specific historical antecedent: the Mississippi flood of 1927, the greatest flood ever known.

One year after the Great Flood of 1927, Huey Long launched his first campaign for governor of Louisiana. His platform was summarized in a speech under the Evangeline Oak in St. Martinsville, which was memorialized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem:

“. . . 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!

Thank you.

-0-

(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 of History at the University of Virginia.)


[i] Commencement Address by James Bond, Berea College Reporter (June 1892).

[ii] The Nation, at 17 (Jan. 2, 2006)

[iii] Barbara Ransby, “Katrina, Black Women, and the Deadly Discourse on Black Poverty in America,” at 217, Dubois Review, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Spring 2006).

[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, University of Georgia Press (1997).

[vii] Kristen Lavell and Joe Feagin, “Hurricane Katrina: The Race and Class Debate,” Monthly Review, Vol. 58, No. 3 (July – August 2006).

[viii] Id.

[ix] Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S. J., “The Jesuit University in the Light of the Ignation Charism,” Address to the International Meeting of Jesuit Higher Educations, Rome, May 27, 2001, # 26.