Harvard graduates this week will hear from two high-profile leaders, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, Thursday and Sunday. Ahead of the ceremonies, we look back at Commencement addresses from recent years.
6 past Harvard Commencement speakers offer inspiring messages of justice, courage, resilience, empathy
U.S. Rep. John Lewis
The Civil Rights icon delivers a powerful message on the importance of truth, justice, and equality at a time when those values have come under assault.
Thank you so much for those kind words of introduction. I must tell you that I’m delighted, very pleased and really happy to be here. You look good! The weather is good, rain stayed away. I’m happy. It’s good to see each and every one of you. Fellows of Harvard University, members of the Board of Overseers, members of the alumni board, distinguished deans, guests, faculty and all of the students, all of the wonderful graduates, and madam president, thank you. Thank you for your leadership, thank you for getting in good trouble! Necessary trouble. To lead this great University.
I want to take just a moment to honor the tenure of a great leader, who, through her courage and vision, worked to lead this historic university to even higher heights. Madam president, thank you for being a friend, but more importantly, thank you for using your office to move Harvard toward a more all-inclusive institution. Somewhere along the way, you realized that the brilliant mind is not confined to one discipline or one way of thinking.
In fact, true genius sees connections and relationships across barriers, to build a new understanding of the world around us. Creating one Harvard is much like the work I dedicated my life to. Ever since as a young girl you wrote a letter to President Eisenhower as a little girl, you have been responding to the cry for human dignity that rings out in our world. You used your vision and your talent, you used the great resources of this university to respond to that call, and I thank you. Thank you for your contribution to human unity in our world.
Today I say to each and every one of you who graduated from this University, you must lead. You’re never too young to lead, you’re never too old to lead! We need your leadership now more than ever before. We need it! We must save our country! We must save it! We must save our democracy. There are forces in America today and around the world trying to take us to some other place. Our foremothers and forefathers brought us to this place. Maybe our foremothers and our forefathers all came to this great land in different ships but as the late great A. Philip Randolph said “we are all in the same boat now” and we must look out for each other and care for each other. You’re never too young or too old to lead! To speak up! Speak out! And get in good trouble, necessary trouble. You cannot afford to stand on the sidelines.
Another generation of young people and people not so young are inspired to get in the way. Students from Harvard, Dr. Cole, who I have been knowing for many years came to Mississippi, came to the South and gave everything you had. During the 63 young men that I knew, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwermer, and James Chaney gave their very lives while they were helping people to register to vote. The vote is precious. It’s almost sacred. It is the most powerful, nonviolent instrument or tool we have in a democratic society and we must use t if we fail to use it, we will lose it.
So during this election year, I urge you, I plead with you to do what you can to save and rescue America. To do what you can to save the planet! Save this spaceship we call earth and leave it a little cleaner, a little greener, and a little more peaceful. For generations yet unborn. We have a mission and a mandate to go out there, play a role and play it so well as Dr. King would say, that no one else can play it any better. Some of you have heard me say from time to time that I grew up in rural Alabama on a farm, picking cotton, gathering peanuts, gathering corn. Sometimes I would be out there working and my mother would say, “boy, you’re falling behind! You need to catch up.” And I would say “this is hard work.” And she said “hard work never killed anybody.” And I said “well it’s about to kill me!” We need to work hard! There is work to be done. These smart graduates will lead us. High school students lead us, and guys, I say to you, if you’re not mindful, the women are going to lead us! It is my belief, it is my feeling as a traveler of America that the women and young. People, high school students, elementary school students and College students will lead us as part of a nonviolent revolution. We will create an America that is better, a little more humane and no one, but no one can deny us of that.
I just want to say one or two words to the graduates. Take a deep breath and take it all in. But tomorrow, I hope you roll up your sleeves, because the world is waiting for talented men and women to lead it to a better place. During the 60s, people literally put their bodies on the line! Many came from this University, came from Cambridge, from Boston, throughout the state and throughout America. Just think a few short years ago that Black people and white people couldn’t be seated together on a Greyhound business or trailway bus, leaving Washington, D.C., to travel through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi. We were on our way to New Orleans to test a decision of the United States Supreme Court. We were beaten, arrested, and more than 400 of us were jailed. My seatmate was a young white gentleman from Connecticut. We arrived in a small town in South Carolina. We were beaten, left bloody. But many years later, and this was May 1961, same year that Barack Obama was born, but many years later, one of the guys that beat us came to my office in Washington. He got information from a local reporter. He was in his 70s, his son came with him in his 40s. He said, “Mr. Lewis, I’m one of the people that beat you. Beat your seatmate. I’ve been a member of the Klan.” He said “will you forgive me? I want to apologize. Will you accept my apology? Will you forgive me?” His son started crying, he started crying and I said, “I forgive you. I accept your apology.” They hugged me, I hugged them back, and I cried with them. It is the power of the way of peace, the power of love, it is the power of the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. We need to create a society where we can be reconciled and lay down the burden of hath for hate is too heavy of a burden to bear.
Fifty years ago the man that I admired, the man that was like a brother, Martin Luther King Jr., was taken from us. When we heard that Dr. King had been assassinated I was in Indianapolis, Indiana, campaigning with Bobby Kennedy. I cried. Stopped crying and I said to myself “we still have bobby.” Two months later Bobby Kennedy was gone. And I cried some more. Today we’ve got to get rid of our are tears and not be down. And not get lost in the sea of despair. We’ve got to be hopeful and keep the faith and turn the ship around. We can do it and we must do it!
Here at Harvard you’ve been well trained. You must lead. You must get out there and as Dr. King would say, be a headlight, not a taillight! It’s your time, it’s your calling. During the 60s I got arrested a few times, 40 times! And since I’ve been in Congress another five times! And I’m probably going to get arrested again! My philosophy is very simple, when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, stand up! Say something! Speak up and speak out!
When I was growing up as a young boy in rural Alabama, 50 miles from Montgomery, I had an aunt by the name of Seneva and my aunt lived in a shotgun house. Here at Harvard you never seen a shotgun house, you don’t even know what I’m talking about. One way in, one way out. What is a shotgun house? Old house, dirt yard. Sometimes my aunt Seneva would go out on the weekend, Friday or Saturday, and take a brush broom made from dogwood branches and sweep the yard very clean. One Saturday afternoon few of my brothers and sisters, cousins, about 15 of us young children were playing in her dirt yard. And an unbelievable storm came up. The wind started blowing, the thunder started rolling and the lightning started flashing and she told us to come in. We went in. The wind continued to blow, the thunder continued to roll, the lightning continued to flash, and the rain continued to beat on this old tin roof of the shotgun house. And we cried and cried. And in one corner of the old house appeared to be lifting up. And my aunt walked over to that side to hold the house down with her body. When the other corner appeared to be lifting she had us walk to that corner, we were children walking with the wind, but we never, ever left the house! I say to each of you, each and every one of us, the wind may blow, the thunder may roll, the lightning may flash, and the rain may beat down on an old house. Call it a house of Harvard, call it a house of Cambridge, call it a house of Boston, call it the house of Washington, or Alabama or Georgia, we all live in the same house. We all must hold our little house down. So I say to you: Walk with the wind. Let the spirit of history be your guide.
Thank you very much.
“Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
Drawing from her own life story, the “Harry Potter” author urges graduates not to fear failure but to learn from it and emphasized the power of empathy and imagination.
“If we break down the walls that hem us in, if we step out into the open and have the courage to embrace new beginnings, everything is possible.”
Like the Berlin Wall, “anything that seems set in stone or inalterable can indeed change,” Germany’s first woman chancellor said.
Herman Hesse wrote, “In all beginnings dwells a magic force for guarding us and helping us to live.” These words by Herman Hesse inspired me when I completed my physics degree at the age of 24. That was back in 1978. The world was divided into east and west, and it was in the grips of the Cold War. I grew up in East Germany, in the GDR, the part of my country which was not free at that time, in a dictatorship. People were oppressed and under state surveillance. Political dissidents were persecuted. The East German government was afraid that the people would flee to freedom. And that’s why it built the Berlin Wall, a wall made of concrete and steel. Anyone caught trying to overcome it was arrested or shot dead. This wall, which cut Berlin in half, divided a people and it divided families. My family was also divided.My first job after college was as a physicist at the Academy of Sciences in East Berlin. I lived near the Berlin Wall. I walked towards it every day on my way home from my institute. Behind it lay West Berlin, freedom. And every day, when I was very close to the wall, I had to turn away at the last minute in order to head towards my apartment. Every day, I had to turn away from freedom at the last minute. I don’t know how often I thought that I just couldn’t take it anymore. It was so frustrating.
Now, I was not a dissident. I didn’t run up and bang against the wall. Nor, however, did I deny its existence, for I didn’t want to lie to myself. The Berlin Wall limited my opportunities. It quite literally stood in my way. However, there was one thing which this wall couldn’t do during all those years. It couldn’t impose limits on my inner thoughts. My personality, my imagination, my dreams and desires, prohibitions or coercion couldn’t limit any of that. Then came 1989. A common desire for freedom unleashed incredible forces throughout Europe. In Poland, in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia, as well as in East Germany, hundreds of thousands of people dared to take to the streets. The people demonstrated and brought down the wall. Something which many people, including myself, would not have believed possible became reality. Where there was once only a dark wall, a door suddenly opened. For me, too, the moment had come to walk through that door. I no longer had to turn away from freedom at the last minute. I was able to cross this border and venture out into the great wide open.
During these months, 30 years ago, I experienced firsthand that nothing has to stay the way it is. This experience, dear graduates, is the first thought I want to share with you today for your future. Anything that seems to be set in stone or inalterable can, indeed, change. In matters both large and small, it holds true that every change begins in the mind. My parents’ generation discovered this in a most painful way. My father and mother were born in 1926 and 1928.
When they weren’t as old as most of you here today, the betrayal of all civilized well values that was the Shoah and World War II had just ended. My country, Germany, had brought unimaginable suffering on Europe and the world. The victors and the defeated could easily have remained irreconcilable for many years, but instead, Europe overcame centuries old conflicts. A peaceful order based on common values rather than suppose at national strength emerged. Despite all the discussions and temporary setbacks, I firmly believe that we Europeans have United for the better. And the relationship between Germans and Americans, too, demonstrates how former wartime enemies can become friends.
It was George Marshall who gave a crucial contribution to this for the plan he announced at the commencement ceremonies in 1947 in this very place. The transatlantic partnership based on values, such as democracy and human rights, has given us an era of peace and prosperity of benefit to all sides, which has lasted for more than 70 years now. And today, it will not be long now before the politicians of my generation are no longer the subject of the exercising leadership program, and at most will be dealt with in leadership in history. Harvard class of 2019, your generation will be faced with the challenges of the 21st century in the coming decades. You are among those who will lead us into the future.
Protectionism and trade conflicts, jeopardize free international trade, and thus the very foundations of our prosperity. The digital transformation affects all facets of our lives, wars and terrorism lead to displacement and forced migration, climate change poses a threat to our planet’s natural resources, it and the resulting crises are caused by humans. Therefore, we can and must do everything humanly possible to truly master this challenge to humankind. It’s still possible. However, each and every one of us must play our part. And I say this with a measure of self criticism, get better. I will therefore do everything in my power to ensure that Germany, my country, will achieve climate neutrality by 2050. Changes for the better are possible if we tackle them together. If we were to go it alone, we could not achieve much. The second thought I want to share with you is therefore, more than ever our way of thinking and our actions have to be multilateral rather than unilateral, global rather than national, outward looking rather than isolationists. In short, we have to work together rather than alone.
You, dear graduates, will have quite different opportunities to do this in future than my generation did. After all, your smartphone probably has considerably more processing power than the copy of an IBM mainframe computer manufactured in the Soviet Union, which I was allowed to use for my dissertation in East Germany in 1986.
Today we use artificial intelligence, for example, to search through millions of images for symptoms of diseases.In order, among other things, to better diagnose cancer. In future, empathetic robots could help doctors and nurses to focus on the individual needs of patients. We cannot predict today which applications will be possible. However, the opportunities it brings are truly breathtaking.
Class of 2019, how we use these opportunities will be largely up to you as graduates. You are the ones who will be involved in deciding how our approach to how we work, communicate, get about, indeed, our entire way of life will develop. As federal chancellor, I often have to ask myself, “Am I doing the right thing?” “Am I doing something? Because it isn’t right? Or simply because it is possible.” That is something you two need to keep asking yourselves. And that is the third thought I wish to share with you today.
Are we laying down the rules for technology or is technology dictating how we interact? Do we prioritize people as individuals with their human dignity and all their many facets? Or do we see in them merely consumers, data sources, objects of surveyance. These are difficult questions.
I have learned that we can find good answers even to difficult questions if we always try to view the world through the eyes of others. If we respect other people’s history, traditions, religion, and identity. If we hold fast to our inalienable values and act in accordance with them. And if we don’t always act on our first impulses, even when there is pressure to make a snap decision.
But instead take a moment to stop. Be still. Think. Pause. Granted, that certainly takes courage. Above all it calls for truthfulness in our attitude towards others. And perhaps most importantly, it calls for us to be honest with ourselves.
What better place to begin to do so than here, in this place, where so many young people from all over the world come to learn, research, and discuss the issues of our time under the maxim of truth. That requires us not to describe lies as truth and truth as lies. It requires us not to accept shortcomings as our normality. Yet what, dear graduates, could stop you? What could stop us from doing that?
Once again, the answer is walls.
Walls in people’s minds. Walls of ignorance and narrow-mindedness. They exist between family members, as well as between groups within the society, between people of different skin colors, nations, and religions. I would like us to break down these walls. Walls that keep preventing us from envisioning the world in which, together, we want to live.
Whether we manage to do that is up to us. That’s why my full thought for you, dear graduates, to consider is this. Nothing can be taken for granted. Our individual liberties are not givens. Democracy is not something we can take for granted. Neither is peace and neither is prosperity.
But if we break down… If we break down the walls that hem us in, if we step out into the open and have the courage to embrace new beginnings, everything is possible. Walls can collapse. Dictatorships can disappear. We can halt global warming. We can eradicate starvation. We can eliminate diseases. We can give people, especially girls, access to education. We can fight the causes of displacement and forced migration. We can do all of that. Let’s not start by asking what isn’t possible, or focusing on what has always been that way. Let’s start by asking what is possible and looking for things that have never been done like that before. This is exactly what I said to the Bundestag, the German Parliament, in 2005 in my first policy statement as newly elected Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany and the first woman to hold this office. I want to use precisely these words to share with you my fifth thought. Let us surprise ourselves by showing what is possible. Let us surprise ourselves by showing what we are capable of. In my own life, it was the fall of the Berlin Wall that allowed me almost 30 years ago to step out into the open. At that point, I left my work as a scientist behind me and entered politics. That was an exciting and magical time, just as your lives will be exciting and magical.
I also experienced moments of doubt and worry, for at that time, we all knew what lay behind us, but not what might lie ahead. Perhaps that reflects a little how you, too, are feeling today, amidst all the joy of this occasion.
The six thought I also want to share with you is this. The moment when you step out into the open is also a moment of risk-taking. Letting go of the old is part of a new beginning. There is no beginning without an end, no day without night, no life without death. Our whole life consists of the difference, the space between beginning and ending.
It is what lies in between that we call life and experience. I believe at time and time again, we need to be prepared to keep bringing things to an end in order to feel the magic of new beginnings and to make the most of opportunities. That was what I learned as a student, and it is what I now in politics. Who knows what life will bring after my time as a politician? That, too, is completely open. Only one thing is clear. It will again be something different and something new.
That’s why I want to leave this wish with you. Tear down walls of ignorance and narrow mindedness for nothing has to stay as it is.
It’s six things. Take joint action in the interest of the moderate lateral global world. Keep asking yourselves, “Am I doing something because it is right, or simply because it’s possible?” Don’t forget that freedom is never something that can be taken for granted. Surprise yourself with what is possible. Remember that openness always involves risks. Letting go of the old is part of the new beginning. Above all, nothing can be taken for granted. Everything is possible. Thank you.
“In a two-hour movie, you get a handful of character-defining moments, but in real life, you face them every day. Life is one strong, long string of character-defining moments.”
Don’t shy away from the world’s pain, the filmmaker urged grads. Instead, examine it, challenge it and, while you’re at it, find “a villain to vanquish.”
Thank you, thank you, President Faust, and Paul Choi, thank you so much.
It’s an honor and a thrill to address this group of distinguished alumni and supportive friends and kvelling parents. We’ve all gathered to share in the joy of this day, so please join me in congratulating Harvard’s Class of 2016.
I can remember my own college graduation, which is easy, since it was only 14 years ago. How many of you took 37 years to graduate? Because, like most of you, I began college in my teens, but sophomore year, I was offered my dream job at Universal Studios, so I dropped out. I told my parents if my movie career didn’t go well, I’d re-enroll. It went all right.But eventually, I returned for one big reason. Most people go to college for an education, and some go for their parents, but I went for my kids. I’m the father of seven, and I kept insisting on the importance of going to college, but I hadn’t walked the walk. So, in my fifties, I re-enrolled at Cal State — Long Beach, and I earned my degree.I just have to add: It helped that they gave me course credit in paleontology for the work I did on Jurassic Park. That’s three units for Jurassic Park, thank you. Well I left college because I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and some of you know, too — but some of you don’t. Or maybe you thought you knew but are now questioning that choice. Maybe you’re sitting there trying to figure out how to tell your parents that you want to be a doctor and not a comedy writer.
Well, what you choose to do next is what we call in the movies the “character-defining moment.” Now, these are moments you’re very familiar with, like in the last “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” when Rey realizes the force is with her. Or Indiana Jones choosing mission over fear by jumping over a pile of snakes. Now in a two-hour movie, you get a handful of character-defining moments, but in real life, you face them every day. Life is one strong, long string of character-defining moments. And I was lucky that at 18 I knew what I exactly wanted to do. But I didn’t know who I was. How could I? And how could any of us? Because for the first 25 years of our lives, we are trained to listen to voices that are not our own. Parents and professors fill our heads with wisdom and information, and then employers and mentors take their place and explain how this world really works. And usually these voices of authority make sense, but sometimes, doubt starts to creep into our heads and into our hearts. And even when we think, “that’s not quite how I see the world,” it’s kind of easier to just to nod in agreement and go along, and for a while, I let that going along define my character. Because I was repressing my own point of view, because like in that Nilsson song, “Everybody was talkin’ at me, so I couldn’t hear the echoes of my mind.” And at first, the internal voice I needed to listen to was hardly audible, and it was hardly noticeable — kind of like me in high school.
But then I started paying more attention, and my intuition kicked in. And I want to be clear that your intuition is different from your conscience. They work in tandem, but here’s the distinction: Your conscience shouts, “here’s what you should do,” while your intuition whispers, “here’s what you could do.” Listen to that voice that tells you what you could do. Nothing will define your character more than that. Because once I turned to my intuition, and I tuned into it, certain projects began to pull me into them, and others, I turned away from. And up until the 1980s, my movies were mostly, I guess what you could call “escapist.” And I don’t dismiss any of these movies — not even 1941. Not even that one. And many of these early films reflected the values that I cared deeply about, and I still do. But I was in a celluloid bubble, because I’d cut my education short, my worldview was limited to what I could dream up in my head, not what the world could teach me.
But then I directed “The Color Purple.” And this one film opened my eyes to experiences that I never could have imagined, and yet were all too real. This story was filled with deep pain and deeper truths, like when Shug Avery says, “Everything wants to be loved.” My gut, which was my intuition, told me that more people needed to meet these characters and experience these truths. And while making that film, I realized that a movie could also be a mission. I hope all of you find that sense of mission. Don’t turn away from what’s painful. Examine it. Challenge it. My job is to create a world that lasts two hours. Your job is to create a world that lasts forever. You are the future innovators, motivators, leaders and caretakers. And the way you create a better future is by studying the past.
“Jurassic Park” writer Michael Crichton, who graduated from both this college and this medical school, liked to quote a favorite professor of his who said that if you didn’t know history, you didn’t know anything. You were a leaf that didn’t know it was part of a tree. So history majors: Good choice, you’re in great shape…Not in the job market, but culturally. The rest of us have to make a little effort. Social media that we’re inundated and swarmed with is about the here and now. But I’ve been fighting and fighting inside my own family to get all my kids to look behind them, to look at what already has happened. Because to understand who they are is to understand who we were, and who their grandparents were, and then, what this country was like when they emigrated here. We are a nation of immigrants at least for now.
So to me, this means we all have to tell our own stories. We have so many stories to tell. Talk to your parents and your grandparents, if you can, and ask them about their stories. And I promise you, like I have promised my kids, you will not be bored. And that’s why I so often make movies based on real-life events. I look to history not to be didactic, cause that’s just a bonus, but I look because the past is filled with the greatest stories that have ever been told. Heroes and villains are not literary constructs, but they’re at the heart of all history.
And again, this is why it’s so important to listen to your internal whisper. It’s the same one that compelled Abraham Lincoln and Oskar Schindler to make the correct moral choices. In your defining moments, do not let your morals be swayed by convenience or expediency. Sticking to your character requires a lot of courage. And to be courageous, you’re going to need a lot of support.And if you’re lucky, you have parents like mine. I consider my mom my lucky charm. And when I was 12 years old, my father handed me a movie camera, the tool that allowed me to make sense of this world. And I am so grateful to him for that. And I am grateful that he’s here at Harvard, sitting right down there. My dad is 99 years old, which means he’s only one year younger than Widener Library. But unlike Widener, he’s had zero cosmetic work. And dad, there’s a lady behind you, also 99, and I’ll introduce you after this is over, okay? But look, if your family’s not always available, there’s backup. Near the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life” — you remember that movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life”? Clarence the Angel inscribes a book with this: “No man is a failure who has friends.” And I hope you hang on to the friendships you’ve made here at Harvard. And among your friends, I hope you find someone you want to share your life with.
I imagine some of you in this yard may be a tad cynical, but I want to be unapologetically sentimental. I spoke about the importance of intuition and how there’s no greater voice to follow. That is, until you meet the love of your life. And this is what happened when I met and married Kate, and that became the greatest character-defining moment of my life.Love, support, courage, intuition. All of these things are in your hero’s quiver, but still, a hero needs one more thing: A hero needs a villain to vanquish. And you’re all in luck. This world is full of monsters. And there’s racism, homophobia, ethnic hatred, class hatred, there’s political hatred, and there’s religious hatred.As a kid, I was bullied — for being Jewish. This was upsetting, but compared to what my parents and grandparents had faced, it felt tame. Because we truly believed that anti-Semitism was fading. And we were wrong. Over the last two years, nearly 20,000 Jews have left Europe to find higher ground. And earlier this year, I was at the Israeli embassy when President Obama stated the sad truth. He said: “We must confront the reality that around the world, anti-Semitism is on the rise. We cannot deny it.”
My own desire to confront that reality compelled me to start, in 1994, the Shoah Foundation. And since then, we’ve spoken to over 53,000 Holocaust survivors and witnesses in 63 countries and taken all their video testimonies. And we’re now gathering testimonies from genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Armenia and Nanking. Because we must never forget that the inconceivable doesn’t happen — it happens frequently. Atrocities are happening right now. And so we wonder not just, “When will this hatred end?” but, “How did it begin?”
Now, I don’t have to tell a crowd of Red Sox fans that we are wired for tribalism. But beyond rooting for the home team, tribalism has a much darker side. Instinctively and maybe even genetically, we divide the world into “us” and “them.” So the burning question must be: How do all of us together find the “we?” How do we do that? There’s still so much work to be done, and sometimes I feel the work hasn’t even begun. And it’s not just anti-Semitism that’s surging — Islamophobia’s on the rise, too. Because there’s no difference between anyone who is discriminated against, whether it’s the Muslims, or the Jews, or minorities on the border states, or the LGBT community — it is all big one hate.
And to me, and, I think, to all of you, the only answer to more hate is more humanity. We gotta repair — we have to replace fear with curiosity. “Us” and “them” — we’ll find the “we” by connecting with each other. And by believing that we’re members of the same tribe. And by feeling empathy for every soul — even Yalies.
My son graduated from Yale, thank you …
But make sure this empathy isn’t just something that you feel. Make it something you act upon. That means vote. Peaceably protest. Speak up for those who can’t and speak up for those who may be shouting but aren’t being hard. Let your conscience shout as loud as it wants if you’re using it in the service of others.
And as an example of action in service of others, you need to look no further than this Hollywood-worthy backdrop of Memorial Church. Its south wall bears the names of Harvard alumni — like President Faust has already mentioned — students and faculty members, who gave their lives in World War II. All told, 697 souls, who once tread the ground where stand now, were lost. And at a service in this church in late 1945, Harvard President James Conant — which President Faust also mentioned — honored the brave and called upon the community to “reflect the radiance of their deeds.”
Seventy years later, this message still holds true. Because their sacrifice is not a debt that can be repaid in a single generation. It must be repaid with every generation. Just as we must never forget the atrocities, we must never forget those who fought for freedom. So as you leave this college and head out into the world, continue please to ‘reflect the radiance of their deeds,’ or as Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan would say, “Earn this.”
And please stay connected. Please never lose eye contact. This may not be a lesson you want to hear from a person who creates media, but we are spending more time looking down at our devices than we are looking in each other’s eyes. So, forgive me, but let’s start right now. Everyone here, please find someone’s eyes to look into. Students, and alumni and you too, President Faust, all of you, turn to someone you don’t know or don’t know very well. They may be standing behind you, or a couple of rows ahead. Just let your eyes meet. That’s it. That emotion you’re feeling is our shared humanity mixed in with a little social discomfort.
But, if you remember nothing else from today, I hope you remember this moment of human connection. And I hope you all had a lot of that over the past four years. Because today you start down the path of becoming the generation on which the next generation stands. And I’ve imagined many possible futures in my films, but you will determine the actual future. And I hope that it’s filled with justice and peace.
And finally, I wish you all a true, Hollywood-style happy ending. I hope you outrun the T. rex, catch the criminal and for your parents’ sake, maybe every now and then, just like E.T.: Go home. Thank you.
“Facts and truth are matters of life and death. Misinformation, disinformation, delusions, and deceit can kill.”
“Imperfect though [it] may be” an independent press is key to ensuring that facts are presented and truth defended in society,” the Washington Post executive editor said.
Good morning from my home. Like you, I wish we were together on campus.There is so much now we can no longer take for granted. The air we breathe is first among them. So, those of us who are healthy have ample reason to be grateful. I am also grateful to Harvard and to President Bacow for inviting me to be with you. To the Harvard Class of 2020, congratulations. And congratulations to the parents, professors, mentors and friends who helped you along the way. Joining you for graduation is a high honor.
For me, this is an opportunity – an opportunity to speak about subjects that I believe are of real urgency. Especially now during a worldwide health emergency.
I would like to discuss with you the need for a commitment to facts and to truth. Only a few months ago, I would have settled for emphasizing that our democracy depends on facts and truth. And it surely does. But now, as we can plainly see, it is more elemental than that.
Facts and truth are matters of life and death. Misinformation, disinformation, delusions and deceit can kill. Here is what can move us forward: Science and medicine. Study and knowledge. Expertise and reason. In other words, fact and truth. I want to tell you why free expression by all of us and an independent press, imperfect though we may be, is essential to getting at the truth. And why we must hold government to account. And hold other powerful interests to account as well.When I began thinking about these remarks, I expected, of course, to be on Harvard’s campus. And I thought: Not a bad place to talk about a free press. Not a bad place to talk about our often-testy relationship with official power.
It was in Boston, after all, where the first newspaper of the American colonies was founded. Its first edition was published September 25th, 1690. The very next day, the governor and council of Massachusetts shut it down. So, the press of this country has long known what it means to face a government that aims to silence it. Fortunately, there has been progress. With the First Amendment, James Madison championed the right of “freely examining public characters and measures.”
But it took a very long time before we as a nation fully absorbed what Madison was talking about. We took many ominous turns. We had the Alien and Sedition acts under John Adams, the Sedition and Espionage Acts under Woodrow Wilson, the McCarthy era. It was not always clear where we as a nation would end up.
Finally, witnessing the authoritarianism of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, we began to secure a free press in this country. The Supreme Court would forcefully emphasize the press’ role in guaranteeing a democracy. Justice Hugo Black said it well decades later: “The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people.” Not only the secrets of government, I would add. Our duty to inform the public does not stop there. Not by a long shot.
That was evident during my years as a journalist in Boston. Amid today’s crisis, it seems like another era. And I guess it is. But I want to tell you about it — because I think it remains instructive about what a strong, independent press must do.
I started as editor of the Boston Globe in the summer of 2001. One day prior to my start date, a Globe columnist wrote about a shocking case. A priest had been accused of abusing as many as 80 kids. A lawsuit alleged that the cardinal in Boston at the time knew about the serial abuse, didn’t do anything about it — and repeatedly reassigned this priest from parish to parish, warning no one, over decades. The Archdiocese called the accusations baseless and reckless. The Globe columnist wrote that the truth might never be known. Internal documents that might reveal it had been sealed by a judge. On my first day of work, we asked the question: How do we get at the truth? Because the public deserved to know.
That question led us to challenge the judge’s secrecy order. And our journalists launched an investigation of their own. In early 2002, we published what we had learned through reporting and by prevailing in court. We published the truth: The cardinal did know about the abuse by this priest. Yet he kept him in ministry, thus enabling further abuse. Dozens of clergy in the diocese had committed similar offenses. The cardinal had covered it all up.
And a bigger truth would emerge: Covering up such abuse had been practice and policy in the Church for decades. Only now the powerful were being held to account.
Late in 2002, after hundreds of stories on this subject, I received a letter from a Father Thomas P. Doyle. Father Doyle had struggled for years – in vain — to get the Church to confront the very issue we were writing about. He expressed deep gratitude for our work. “It is momentous,” he wrote, “and its good effects will reverberate for decades.” Father Doyle did not see journalists as the enemy. He saw us an ally when one was sorely needed. So did abuse survivors. I kept Father Doyle’s letter on my desk — a daily reminder of what journalists must do when we see evidence of wrongdoing.
Harvard’s commencement speaker two years ago, civil rights pioneer John Lewis, once said this: “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.” We as journalists have the capacity – along with the constitutional right — to say and do something. We also have the obligation. And we must have the will. So must you. Every one of you has a stake in this idea of free expression. You want to be free to express your views. You should be free to hear the views of others, the same or different. You want to be free to watch any movie. To read any book. To listen to any lyrics. You should be free to say what you know is true without threat of government reprisal.And you should acknowledge this if you value these freedoms that come with democracy: Democracy cannot exist without a free and independent press. It never has.
Leaders who crave more power for themselves always move quickly to crush an independent press. Next, they destroy free expression itself. Sadly, much of the world is on that worrisome path. And efforts in this country to demonize, delegitimize and dehumanize the press give license to other governments to do the same – and to do far worse.
By the end of last year, a near-record 250 journalists worldwide were sitting in prison. Thirty of them faced accusations of “false news,” a charge virtually unheard-of only seven years earlier.
Turkey has been trading places with China as No. 1 on the list of countries that jail the most journalists. The Turkish government has shut down more than 100 media outlets and charged many journalists as terrorists. Independent media have been largely extinguished. China, of course, imposes some of the world’s tightest censorship on what its citizens can see and hear.
In Hungary, the prime minister has waged war on independent media. Harvard Nieman fellow Andras Petho, who runs an investigative reporting center there, notes that the prime minister’s business allies are “taking over hundreds of outlets and turning them into propaganda machines.”
Like other heads of state, Hungary’s prime minister has exploited the pandemic to grab more power, suppress inconvenient facts, and escalate pressure on news outlets. A new law threatens up to five-year jail terms against those accused of spreading supposedly false information. Independent news outlets have questioned how the crisis was managed. And the fear now is that such accountability journalism will lead to harassment and arrests, as it has in other countries.
In the Philippines, the courageous Maria Ressa, who founded the country’s largest online-only news site, has been battling government harassment for years on other fronts. She now faces prosecution on bogus charges of violating foreign ownership laws. By the end of last year, she had posted bail eight times. Her real violation? She brought scrutiny to the president. In Myanmar, two Reuters journalists — Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo – were imprisoned for more than 500 days for investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys. Finally, a year ago, they were released. In 2018, an opinion writer for The Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi, walked into Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul to get documents he needed to marry. He was murdered there at the hands of a team sent by highest-level Saudi officials. His offense? He had sharply criticized the Saudi government. In Mexico, murderous vengeance against journalists is common. Last year, at least five were killed, more than in any other country. I think also of the risks that American journalists have taken to inform the public. Among them are colleagues I can never forget.
One is Elizabeth Neuffer. Seventeen years ago this month, I stood before her friends at the Boston Globe to report that she had died covering the war in Iraq. Elizabeth was 46, an experienced foreign correspondent, a mentor to others; vivacious and brave. Her Iraqi driver was traveling at high speed because of the risk of abductions. He lost control. Elizabeth died instantly; her translator, too. Elizabeth had a record of fearlessness in investigating war crimes and human rights abuses. Her goal: Reveal the world as it is — because someone might then make things better.
Another colleague was Anthony Shadid. In 2002, I visited Anthony, then a reporter for the Globe, after he was shot and wounded in Ramallah. Lying in a hospital in Jerusalem, it was clear that he had narrowly escaped being paralyzed. Anthony recovered and went on to report from Iraq, where he won two Pulitzer Prizes for The Washington Post. From Egypt, where he was harassed by police. From Libya, where he and three New York Times colleagues were detained by pro-government militias and physically abused. He died in 2012, at age 43, while reporting in Syria, apparently of an asthma attack. Anthony told the stories of ordinary people. Without him, their voices would have gone unheard.
And now I think constantly of reporters, photographers and videographers who risk their own well-being to be with heroic frontline health workers — frontline workers of every sort – to share their stories. Anthony, Elizabeth and my present-day colleagues sought to be eyewitnesses. To see the facts for themselves. To discover the truth and tell it. As a profession, we maintain there is such a thing as fact, there is such a thing as truth.
At Harvard, where the school’s motto is “Veritas,” presumably you do, too. Truth, we know, is not a matter of who wields power or who speaks loudest. It has nothing to do with who benefits or what is most popular. And ever since the Enlightenment, modern society has rejected the idea that truth derives from any single authority on Earth.
To determine what is factual and true, we rely on certain building blocks. Start with education. Then there is expertise. And experience. And, above all, we rely on evidence. We see that acutely now when people’s health can be jeopardized by false claims, wishful thinking and invented realities. The public’s safety requires the honest truth. Yet education, expertise, experience and evidence are being devalued, dismissed and denied. The goal is clear: to undermine the very idea of objective fact, all in pursuit of political gain. Along with that is a systematic effort to disqualify traditional independent arbiters of fact. The press tops the list of targets. But others populate the list, too: courts, historians, even scientists and medical professionals – subject-matter experts of every type.
And so today the government’s leading scientists find their motives questioned, their qualifications mocked — despite a lifetime of dedication and achievement that has made us all safer. In any democracy, we want vigorous debate about our challenges and the correct policies. But what becomes of democracy if we cannot agree on a common set of facts, if we can’t agree on what even constitutes a fact? Are we headed for extreme tribalism, believing only what our ideological soulmates say? Or do we become so cynical that we think everyone always lies for selfish reasons? Or so nihilistic that we conclude no one can ever really know what is true or false; so, no use trying to find out? Regardless, we risk entering dangerous territory. Hannah Arendt, in 1951, wrote of this in her first major work, “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” There, she observed “the possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts … that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective and may become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition.”
One hundred years ago – in 1920 – a renowned journalist and leading thinker, Walter Lippmann, harbored similar worries. Lippmann, once a writer for the Harvard Crimson, warned of a society where people “cease to respond to truths, and respond simply to opinions … what somebody asserts, not what actually is.” Lippmann wrote those words because of concerns about the press itself. He saw our defects and hoped we might fix them, thus improving how information got to the public.
Ours is a profession that still has many flaws. We make mistakes of fact, and we make mistakes of judgment. We are at times overly impressed with what we know when much remains for us to learn. In making mistakes, we are like people in every other profession. And we, too, must be held accountable. What frequently gets lost, though, is the contribution of a free and independent press to our communities and our country — and to the truth.
I think back to the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 when the Miami Herald showed how lax zoning, inspection and building codes had contributed to the massive destruction. Homes and lives are safer today as a result. In 2016, the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia exposed how opioids had flooded the state’s depressed communities, contributing to the highest death rates in the country. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana’s newspapers were indispensable sources of reliable information for residents. The Washington Post in 2007 revealed the shameful neglect and mistreatment of wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital. Corrective action was immediate. The Associated Press in 2015 documented a slave trade behind our seafood supply. Two thousand slaves were freed as a result. The New York Times and The New Yorker in 2017 exposed sexual predators in elite boardrooms. A movement of accountability for abuses against women took root. The New York Times in 1971 was the first to publish the Pentagon Papers, revealing a pattern of official deceit in a war that killed more than 58,000 Americans and countless others. The Washington Post broke open the Watergate scandal in 1972. That led ultimately to the president’s resignation.Those news organizations searched for the truth and told it, undeterred by pushback or pressure or vilification.Facing the truth can cause extreme discomfort. But history shows that we as a nation become better for that reckoning. It is in the spirit of the preamble to our Constitution: “to form a more perfect union.” Toward that end, it is an act of patriotism.
W.E.B. Du Bois, the great scholar and African American activist — and the first African American to graduate with a PhD from Harvard – cautioned against the falsification of events in relating our nation’s history. In 1935, distressed at how deceitfully America’s Reconstruction period was being taught, Du Bois assailed the propaganda of the era. “Nations reel and stagger on their way,” he wrote. “They make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth be ascertainable?”
At this university, you answer that question with your motto — “Veritas.” You seek the truth — with scholarship, teaching and dialogue – knowing that it really matters.My profession shares with you that mission — the always arduous, often tortuous and yet essential pursuit of truth. It is the demand that democracy makes upon us. It is the work we must do. We will keep at it. You should, too. None of us should ever stop.
Thank you for listening. Thank you for honoring me. Good luck to you all. And please, stay well.
“While the legacy of enslavement, racism, discrimination, and exclusion still influences so much of contemporary attitudes, we must never conclude that it is too late to overcome such a legacy. For it is never too late to do justice.”
Ruth J. Simmons
The president of Prairie View A&M University and former president of Brown University and Smith College exhorted graduates to fight inequality and foster diversity and inclusion.
Good day and congratulations to the Harvard University Class of 2021.
It is a singular honor to be invited to address you on this important milestone occasion. To all completing their studies today, I offer my best wishes as you undertake the next exciting phase of your lives. That you have succeeded so well during such a time as this is commendable and augurs well for the years to come when the world will rely greatly on your knowledge, your discernment, and your empathy for those less fortunate than you.
When first approached about delivering this Commencement address, I was, frankly, taken aback. I did not immediately feel up to the task. Recalling occasions when I sat in Tercentenary Theatre looking across the expanse of graduates to the steps of Widener Library, I could not picture myself confidently delivering remarks from a dais where so many more eminent figures had stood and, indeed, made history. Growing up on a constant Jim Crow diet that offered assertions of my inferiority, I’m always that same little Black girl trying to believe in and demonstrate her worthiness. Further, I thought about the challenge of what I might impart in such a pivotal national moment when social gains seem more like losses, when clarity gives way so easily to confusion, and when much heralded progress recedes like a trompe l’oeil that was never real.
I extend greetings from the faculty, administration and students of our 145 year old institution, Prairie View A&M University. And, though I have not been anointed to do so, I also bring greetings from the collection of Historically Black and Minority Serving institutions that have the weight and privilege of advancing access, equity and opportunity for so many communities across the world. Our university, like many others HBCUs, was founded at the end of Reconstruction when Blacks were thought to be unable to perform the highest level academic study. I speak to you, in fact, from the Prairie View campus whose 1500 acres were once the site of the Alta Vista Plantation. That plantation, before being sold to the State of Texas, was the site where 400 human beings were held in slavery. Thus, our very steps as they daily tread upon vestiges of the suffering of our ancestors, call to us constantly to do our duty as full citizens. Painful as such memories are, they are a powerful force that calls us to action when challenges arise.
During the 145 years following our 1876 founding, it would take many years for most universities in our nation to grant access to Blacks. So, universities like Prairie View, designed with limited resources, served the state and nation by admitting students to whom full access to the fruits of liberty was intentionally blocked. We are therefore proud of our legacy of endurance and even prouder of the fact that we converted an assertion of the inferiority of African Americans into a triumph of human capacity. Like other HBCUs, we made a place to empower rather than disparage, to open minds rather than imprison them, to create pathways to promise rather than to stifle opportunity.
Such is the task of every true university. Those of you graduating today can well attest to that. When you first arrived at Harvard as undergraduate or post-graduate students, you most likely could not have imagined the many ways that your ability would be tested, your insights sharpened and expanded, and your prospects in life improved by studying at the University. I certainly didn’t expect such results when I arrived at Harvard and yet I know now that it is likely primarily because I studied at Harvard that I have had the deeply rich and satisfying career that I’ve enjoyed for so many years.
A product of a segregated upbringing in Houston and undergraduate study at an HBCU, I am ashamed to say that in my youth, I secretly bought into the prevailing racial assumptions of the day: that someone like me would be ill-prepared to benefit from and contribute to study at a university of Harvard’s stature. I expected to be flatfooted if not oafish in the company of well-heeled and urbane students who had the advantage of the best education and a wealth of experiences. While not outwardly immobilized by fear of failing the biggest test of my life, I was inwardly terrified that I would fail to measure up. Uncertainty and malaise governed my early days at the university.
Harvard was, you see, a place steeped in other peoples’ traditions—traditions that I could not easily access. My reaction was very much akin to the French expression denoting window shopping: “lécher les vitrines.” Those of us who are outsiders are often as mere observers looking through windows, salivating and wondering how we might ever be able to attain a sense of inclusion, acceptance and respect. Just as when, as a child, I was banned from white establishments, I identified as the outsider looking enviously at others who not only had full access to Harvard’s history and traditions but who also could so easily see themselves reflected in them. Few things that I could see at Harvard at the time represented me. Perhaps it is the memory of that feeling that moved me to remain in university life to make that experience easier for others who felt excluded.
The need to make universities more aware of how first generation and underserved communities reacted to the stultified tradition in many universities shaped my conviction about the importance of individuals feeling fully embraced and respected as learners, erasing vestiges of disparagement that inevitably accrue in an unequal society. Having been profiled and racially isolated and having carried within me for so many years the weight of that sentence, I understood that to change our country, we had to insist that everyone’s humanity, everyone’s traditions and history, everyone’s identity contributes to our learning about the world we must live in together. I came to believe what Harvard expressed in its admission philosophy: that such human differences, intentionally engaged in the educational context, are as much a resource to our intellectual growth as the magnificent tomes that we build libraries to protect and the state of the art equipment proudly arrayed in our laboratories. The encounter with difference rocks!
I believe that each of us has a solemn duty to learn about and embrace that difference. That undertaking takes not a month or a year but a lifetime of concerted action to ensure that we are equipped to play a role in caring for and improving the world we inhabit together. This responsibility should encourage us to commit to our individual as well as professional role in advancing access, equality and mutual respect.
Thus, I believe that the task of a great university is not merely to test the mettle and stamina of brilliant minds but to guide them toward enlightenment, enabling thereby the most fruitful and holistic use of their students’ intelligence and humanity. That enlightenment suggests the need for improving upon students’ self-knowledge but it also means helping them judge others fairly, using the full measure of their empathy and intelligence to do so. In an environment rich in differences of background, experience and perspectives, learning is turbo charged and intensified by the juxtaposition of these differences. Those open minded enough to benefit fully from the power of this learning opportunity are bound for leadership in this time of confusion and division. The Harvard model intentionally and successfully provides to students a head start in understanding how to mediate difference in an ever more complex reality in which some exploit those differences for corrupt purposes.
Today, irrational hatred of targeted groups is seemingly on the rise, stoked by opportunists seeking advantage for themselves and their profits. What stands between such malefactors and the destruction of our common purpose are people like you who, having experienced learning through difference, courageously stand up for the rights of those who are targeted. Your Harvard education, if you were paying close attention here, should have encouraged you to commit willingly to playing such a role. If you follow through on this commitment, in addition to anything else you accomplish in life, you will be saving lives, stanching the flow of hatred and the dissolution of our national bond. You will be serving the mighty cause of justice. If we are to thrive on this orb that we share, our schools and universities must contribute deliberately to increasing our understanding of the ways to interact meaningfully with others.
Harvard is, in some ways, the most powerful university bully pulpit in the nation. It did not achieve that status merely through its age and wealth; it attained that status principally through the efforts of its faculty and graduates’ scholarly and professional output. Through its gates have come generations of scholars with immense intelligence and passionate purpose to whom fate bequeathed the laurels of success. But it is important that universities model in their own values and actions the high purpose that they hope to see in the actions of their scholars.
In that vein, Harvard has a special responsibility as both a prod and steward of the national conscience. It could sit on the hill and congratulate itself on its prowess but it could also use its immense stature to address the widening gaps in how different groups experience freedom and justice. I spoke earlier about the heroic work of HBCUs and minority serving institutions that keep our country open and advancing the cause of equality and access. Yet, many of them have been starved for much of their history by the legacy of underfunding and isolation from the mainstream of higher education.
I call on universities like Harvard to acknowledge the limitations imposed on these institutions over the past decades. While universities like Harvard had the wind at their back, flourishing from endowments, strong enrollments, constant curricular expansion, massive infrastructure improvements, and significant endowment growth, HBCUs often had gale force winds impeding their development. Our nation is finally coming to terms with the consequences of the underfunding of HBCUs but we are far from where we need to be if we are to be assured continued progress in the fight for equal educational benefits.
I ask the university that did so much for me to add to its luster by embracing the opportunity to stand alongside these historic and other minority serving institutions to build stronger partnerships, advocate for greater funding, and elevate the fight for parity and justice to the level it deserves. Let us not complain in a hundred years that those historically excluded from access and opportunity continue to ask how much longer it will take to gain the respect, inclusion and support that their service to the nation deserves.
Many minority serving institutions accept students from impoverished underserved communities where educational preparation often lacks the pre-requisites needed for certain careers. Children in those communities may experience the same or a worse fate than I and my peers did during the pre-Civil Rights era. Consigned to underfunded schools and alienating curricula, they must wonder as I did what will befall them in life. ublic schools saved me and they have the burden still of saving millions of children across this land. In so very many cases, these institutions are the only hope for many children and their families. Support for public education in this moment is as important as it was in the early days of the country when Horace Mann first called for universal education. For Mann, it was a matter of what our young country would need; it still is today as Mann’s emphasis on civic virtue continues to ring true.
Further, in such a moment, universities and all of you must play a leadership role in reversing the designation of the teaching profession as less intellectually worthy, less glamorous, and less important than the high-flying careers of financiers and technologists. Attention to and investment in K-12 teacher preparation and curricular content remains one of the most important ways for universities and the average citizen to contribute to the civic good.
None of us is exempt from responsibility for the future we give our children. Harvard has its role and so do all of you. I have come to ask you who graduate today what you are prepared to do to acknowledge and address the historic biases and inequities that so many continue to experience. Will your actions point us in a more uplifting direction? For, just as we recount the moral bankruptcy of those who cruelly enslaved others, we also tell the story of those who were equally guilty because they refused to challenge the practice of slavery. In the future, the history of these times will reveal both what we do and what we fail to do to address the unjust treatment of marginalized groups. Among all that you will have learned at Harvard, I hope that the consciousness of your responsibility in the struggle for equality remains with you. While the legacy of enslavement, racism, discrimination and exclusion still influences so much of contemporary attitudes, we must never conclude that it is too late to overcome such a legacy. For it is never too late to do justice.
Today, I call on all of you to declare that you will not give sanction to discriminatory actions that hold some groups back to the advantage of others. I call on you to be a force for inclusion by not choosing enclaves of wealth, privilege and tribalism such that you abandon the lessons you learned from your Harvard experience of diversity. I call on you to do your part to ensure that generations to come will no longer be standing on the outside fighting for fairness, respect and inclusion.
Today, after decades in the academy, my path has taken me back to a place where students are waging the same battles that were so hard fought when I was a teenager: safe passage in the face of bigotry, the right to vote, and equal access to educational and professional opportunities. Sandra Bland, a Prairie View alumna, was stopped for a minor traffic offense at the entrance to our campus. Jailed for this offense, she was found deceased in her cell three days later. Must every generation add more tragic evidence of the racial hatred that has troubled the world? Our work is not done as long as there are young people growing up with the thought that they matter less than others. As long as they have fewer and narrower educational opportunities. As long as they must fear for their safety every moment of every day of their lives. As long as their full participation in society is circumscribed by policies that willfully chip away at or block their rights.
Just as I ask Harvard to use its voice on behalf of minority institutions that have been unfairly treated across time, I ask you to add your voice to the cause of justice wherever you go. Help the children of need wherever they are: in underfunded public schools, in neighborhoods bereft of resources, in search of a way to belong. If they do not hear your voices advocating for them and their worth, what must they conclude about their place in the world?
If you take up the cause of these children, you are taking up the greatest cause—that of justice. Today, you earn your laurels as a scholar. Taking up the cause of justice, you will earn your laurels as a human being.
Congratulations, once again, and God speed.