Famous Last Words
African Americans are being sought out to deliver commencement speeches
In 1961, he fled the country. He had accused the U.S. military of discontinuing his academic deferment after officials learned that he was African American. When he refused to report for a physical exam and induction into the army, he was tried, convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison for avoiding the draft. That’s when Dr. Preston King fled to England.
Last year, his daughter, Onna King, who is a member of the British Parliament, attended commencement at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., to accept an honorary degree for her exiled father. Earlier this year, King received a presidential pardon that allowed him to return to the United States. And on May 8, the professor of political philosophy at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom delivered the commencement address at Fisk.
“To have Preston King, who has demonstrated publicly what we instill in our students … here at Fisk — strength of character, academic excellence, personal conviction and leadership — bring the commencement address to the first graduating class of the new millennium can only empower them to pursue excellence and to stand against social injustice in any form,” says Dr. John L. Smith Jr., Fisk’s president.
Strength of character, academic excellence, personal conviction and leadership. If someone is speaking at a college graduation, he or she probably exhibits several of these traits in very public settings. Speakers are considered role models, and it is not surprising to find such people in high demand, speaking at more than one higher education institution during a commencement season.
Take Alexis Herman, the first African American to be U.S. Secretary of Labor, for example. On May 14, Herman gave the commencement address at Marymount University. The Arlington, Va., institution held the ceremony at D.A.R. Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.
“[Herman] is such an outstanding role model for youth, having worked hard and against strong odds to reach her esteemed position as U.S. Secretary of Labor,” says Dr. Elnora D. Daniel, president of Chicago State University, where Herman also was scheduled to deliver the commencement address but had to cancel at the last minute.
“Listen to your heart; lead with your soul; follow your dream; march to the beat of justice,” Herman told the Marymount graduates, urging them to make history, learn from history, take risks and stand up for human rights.
“I was turned down for job after job, sometimes because I was a woman … sometimes because I was Black,” she confided. “One employer looked at me and said, ‘Miss Herman, perhaps you can be a secretary.’ If I saw him today, I would say, ‘Sir, I did become a Secretary.’ The point is this: Don’t let others carve your boundaries or box you in. Draw your own map. Chart your own course.”
Government officials and politicians are always popular candidates for speaking engagements at commencement ceremonies. But presidents, vice presidents or presidential candidates do not necessarily make the top of the most-wanted list. While President Clinton’s appearance at Morgan State’s 1997 commencement was considered something of a coup for the historically Black Maryland institution, the term “role model” is often attached to speakers at HBCUs. And the preferred role model for an audience of Black college graduates is usually a Black person.
“During his tenure as [Federal Communications Commission] Chairman, William Kennard has tenaciously pursued a brilliant, focused agenda for attaining technological pre-eminence in the United States and the global marketplace,” Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert says of the decision to have Kennard deliver the keynote address at that institution’s May 13 commencement convocation. “His ability to effectively craft policy that protects consumers, encourages competition and is grounded in fairness and equality makes him a model of information-age leadership.”
Occasionally, representatives of foreign governments are asked to share their experiences with graduating classes. At Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Premier Jennifer M. Smith of Bermuda told the commencement audience, “You are in charge of your own destiny. Who better than you knows how to use scarce resources? Who better than you knows when to compromise and when to enlist the help of others? These are the characteristics of a good leader.”
However, the timing isn’t always perfect for foreign dignitaries. For example, Howard held a special convocation May 23 so that South African President H.E. Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki could address the university’s community.
Local officials are also well represented on the commencement circuit. At Livingstone College in Salisbury, N.C., Chief Justice Henry E. Frye, the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court of North Carolina, gave the May 6 commencement address.
“The elevator to success might be out of order,” Frye advised the graduates. “You might have to take the stairs. You’ll need strength, good health and fitness. Take them [the stairs] one at a time.”
Selecting A Speaker
Commencement speakers are usually chosen by committee, either of board members or selected campus individuals, and are seldom paid — although most receive some sort of honorary degree.
Black speakers are also sought after by traditionally White institutions. Julian Bond, chairman of the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a member of the Georgia General Assembly for more than 20 years, gave the May 19 commencement address at Washington University in St. Louis. At Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, Dr. Joan Wallace-Benjamin, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, delivered the June 2 commencement address. And Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, spoke at Goucher College’s May 19 commencement in Baltimore.
At the University of Maryland-College Park, Kweisi Mfume, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, urged the nearly 5,000 graduates to fight intolerance and praised students for rallying against hatred and racism in response to hate mail letters and racist incidents that rocked the campus last fall. Encouraging them to join the fight against “a national scourge of insensitivity and intolerance,” Mfume, who was a U.S. Congressman representing Maryland before taking the post at the NAACP, said: “I have not given up on the American ideal or the American possibility, and I have come to the University of Maryland to remind you not to give up also.”
Closer to Home
Academics and higher education administrators are another highly sought-after group. Dr. Robert E. Weems, a history professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia who has written several books on Black finance, addressed his school’s honors convocation on May 9. Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., delivered the commencement addresses at Spelman College in Atlanta on May 21 and at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on June 11.
“Dr. Jackson exemplifies the high standards of scholarly accomplishment, leadership and service which we work to cultivate at Dartmouth,” says Dr. James Wright, president of the university. “She is an important voice in national science policy and in higher education.”
Harvard University always seems to have a fair share of its academics standing behind lecterns on other campuses at graduation time. Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard, delivered the May 12 commencement address at the City College of San Francisco. And Professor Charles F. Ogletree Jr. of the Harvard School of Law spoke at the commencement celebration for Tougaloo College in Mississippi.
Then there are those scholars who return to their alma mater to deliver commencement speeches, like Nima Warfield, a 27-year-old African American Rhodes Scholar. He went back to Morehouse College in Atlanta for the May 21 ceremonies. Warfield, who is a copy editor for the Wall Street Journal, is the youngest commencement speaker in the institution’s history.
“This is the time to be the visionary,” Warfield said. “If you want to be a serious player in this brave new world, you’ve got to be brave enough to free your mind from self-imposed slavery — fear.”
All Walks of Life
Earl G. Graves, founder and publisher of Black Enterprise magazine, represents yet another brand of graduation speaker — the businessperson. Graves appeared at both Morris Brown and Florida A&M University. And speakers across the country echoed his message of responsibility to the community.
“I’ve often said that it is not a crime to earn a lot of money,” Graves told graduates at Florida A&M. “I hope that all of you will earn enough to invest in stocks and bonds, drive luxury cars, wear the very best clothing and live in homes you dream of having today. If you make that much money, you have something to give back.”
Colleges and universities also look to the entertainment industry for graduation speakers. Actor Danny Glover urged Southern Connecticut State University’s Class of 2000 to reach beyond their neighborhoods and consider the global impact of their actions. He also spoke of the need to preserve the planet’s resources and to address the critical social and economic crises in the world — including hunger, homelessness and injustice.
And Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby are perennial favorites. This year, Winfrey delivered the commencement speech at Roosevelt University in Chicago on May 21. On the same day, Cosby was speaking at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.
Earlier in the month, Winfrey also spoke at Salem College in Winston-Salem, N.C. In her speech at Salem — entitled, “What I Know for Sure” — she told graduates: “What I know is there is a calling on each of our lives, a sacred contract that each of us made with the Creator when we came into being. It is each of our jobs to find out what that is and get on about the business of doing it.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com