Good morning, everyone! Thank you for that warm welcome. Thank you, Chairman Rand, for your kind introduction and, especially, for your service to Howard and to America’s seniors. Reverend Richardson, we are grateful for your moving invocation. And, President Ribeau, we salute you for all you do to make the great and historic Howard University ever greater.
I’m thrilled to be here —both for the honor of addressing Howard’s 145th Convocation and for the honor of being made a Doctor of Laws. I must admit that feels pretty good: the school year has barely started, and I’ve already graduated.
I now join the ranks of my other family members who have proudly received accolades from Howard. The difference is, they earned theirs -- my Uncle Leon A. Dickson, Howard Medical School Class of ‘39, and my cousins, Carolyn Whitfield Broome, now Associate Professor of Biochemistry, and Leon Dickson Jr., Associate Professor of Biology.
This is a big day for the whole Howard community — but it’s a particularly important day for the outstanding young men and women of the Class of 2016. So, let me begin by congratulating the freshmen for making it to Howard and for all that you will contribute long after your Howard experience.
With your arrival on campus and now formally with this Convocation, you are part of the Howard tradition of leadership and excellence. That means living up to some very high standards. Because, as Scripture tells us, “For unto whomever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.” So, remember: with Howard’s tremendous opportunities come real responsibilities. Those who have a higher education also have a higher obligation—to give back and help keep America strong.
To compete and lead in our rapidly changing, interconnected world, American needs universities like Howard and exceptional students like you. In 2007, President Obama, then Senator Obama, spoke in Selma about the transition between generations. He began with what he called the Moses generation—the great civil rights generation that ripped down the barbed and twisted structure of Jim Crow, the generation that parted the waters and marched out of Egypt.
In my own family, that legacy of oppression overcome weighed on my late father, Emmett Rice. He was a brilliant, proud man—an economics professor, a senior official at the Treasury Department and the World Bank, and a Governor of the Federal Reserve Board. But his life of service came despite ferocious odds. My dad grew up between the wars in segregated South Carolina, and he never forgot the sting of separate and unequal. He served our country proudly in World War II, as an officer with the Tuskegee Airmen, but he forever resented the irony and inequity of fighting for freedom in a stubbornly segregated military. Dad had to learn to believe in himself by himself, to dismiss the taunting message of Jim Crow that he was somehow less of a man. He overcame that trauma—but he never forgot that he had to endure it. Throughout his career, Dad sought to lift up others so they could seize the opportunities he was almost denied.
In 1912, my mother’s parents emigrated from Jamaica to Portland, Maine. With little formal education, my grandfather took the best job he could get—as a janitor. My grandmother was a maid and a seamstress. But my grandparents managed to scrap and save to send all five of their children to college -- four sons to Bowdoin and my mom, Lois, to Harvard-Radcliffe where she was student government president. Mom, in turn, devoted her distinguished career to making higher education more accessible to all.
I am here today because of these profoundly American stories of struggle and success. I wish my grandfather could have imagined, as he bent over his broom, that his granddaughter would someday serve in the cabinet of the first African-American President of the United States. For President Obama and I come from the next generation—what the President calls the Joshua generation. Our generation didn’t just look out over Canaan. We crossed the river and entered the Promised Land. We are working, as Dr. King put it, to redeem the promissory note from the architects of our republic.
That is a profound shift. Despite all his achievements, my father never stopped believing that segregation had kept him from being all he could be. He was determined, above all, that his children not bear that same psychological baggage. And, thankfully, we did not. Between generations, after the dogs of Birmingham and the buses of Montgomery, America changed. For my brother and me, for the President and First Lady, we of the Joshua generation came of age believing the old limits didn’t apply. New doors were open. And, we’ve seen African-Americans become secretary of state, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, attorney general, Fortune 500 CEOs, Supreme Court justices, astronauts and, of course, President of the United States. And as you well know, many of these trailblazers are proud Howard alumni.
Today, nothing is impossible. When I look at you all, I see yet another generation, bursting with confidence and promise. I see the generation after Joshua. If the Moses generation was about breaking the chains of Egypt, and if the Joshua generation was about crossing over Jordan, then your generation is about thriving in the Promised Land. It’s about finding your own way on the soil your grandparents only dreamed of walking—about making your own path unburdened, as people for whom slavery and segregation are history, not a shackle or a scar.
So, what I have come here to ask is: what will you do? What will your generation contribute? How will you carry on the legacy of service to your country and your world?
In the Bible, after Joshua comes Judges. It’s a sprawling, challenging book about a time of great change, about the shift from revolution to evolution, about the struggles for justice and opportunity that follow the struggle for freedom. And perhaps that’s not a bad way of thinking about the country you’re going to inherit and lead.
The generation after Joshua, your generation, will confront challenges of governance and sovereignty—persistent inequality, stubborn poverty, unresolved conflicts – as well as new possibilities driven by technology and trade. A world where threats don’t stop at borders and education doesn’t stop at graduation.
At Gettysburg, President Lincoln demanded that we dedicate ourselves, and I quote, “to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”
We’ve still got unfinished work to do to expand the reach of democracy, human rights and human dignity around the world. We’ve got unfinished work to do so long as terror threatens our people and our brave troops are risking their lives in Afghanistan to keep us all safe. We’ve got unfinished work to do when half of humanity lives on less than $2.50 a day. And we’ve got unfinished work to do when wars still rage and hatreds still smolder.
Truly, we’ve got unfinished work to do when American children go to sleep with rumbling stomachs and go to school in crumbling classrooms. We’ve got unfinished work to do when fellow citizens are still shackled by poverty or held back by bigotry. We’ve got unfinished work to do to recover from the worst economic crisis since the Depression. We’ve got unfinished work to do to help neighbors who’ve lost their homes and friends who’ve lost their jobs. We’ve got unfinished work to do to buttress the bonds of citizenship and ensure every American has the opportunity to fulfill their true potential.
So let us rededicate ourselves today to this great, unfinished work—to coming together to redeem our republic and to mend our imperfect world.
Yes, we’ve come far. We should be proud of what we’ve accomplished—but we cannot allow progress to become an alibi for apathy. Achievement can never become a pretext for selfishness. And success must never be an excuse for complacency. Nor can we look to the leadership of any one man or woman to substitute for the collective and individual responsibilities we must bear.
You are each here because this legendary American university sees a spark of potential in you. And, it’s your job to fan that flame so it warms us all. We need you to be everything you can—extraordinary young leaders, fired up with passion and patriotism, determined to be not just good students but great citizens.
To compete in a global marketplace and to lead in our complex world, we need you each to excel and to serve. We need you to become engineers and scientists who will cure modern-day plagues and save our warming planet. We need you to become lawyers and judges who will fortify our liberty in law. We need you to become business leaders who will create prosperity that works for all Americans. We need you to become innovators who will create not just new jobs but new industries. We need you to become doctors who will bring health to the hurting. We need you to become ministers who will give strength to suffering souls. We need you to become teachers and professors who will instill a love of citizenship and learning in the next generation. We need you to become journalists and activists – truth-tellers who hold our leaders accountable. We need you to become mayors and ambassadors, justices and governors—and presidents.
Freshmen, use your time at Howard to decide where your personal passion lies and how you can best fulfill your unique, God-given potential. Spend time trying to divine what success looks like to you and then work backwards. Figure out what skills and experiences you need to acquire while here at Howard in order to reach your goal down the road. If you want to be a civil engineer, go to Kenya with Howard’s Engineers without Borders and help design clean water systems. If you want to teach, spend an “Alternative Spring Break” helping adults in Detroit learn to read.
As you wrestle with how you might best contribute, I hope some of you will consider the course of the great Ralph Bunche. Bunche founded Howard’s Political Science Department, helped draft the UN Charter, and won the Nobel Prize for negotiating armistices between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Think about a career in diplomacy or development. Join the Foreign Service, master international law, or design a new vaccine to reduce preventable childhood death. In our 21st-century world, we need to draw on our unique diversity and our full national talent as we make the toughest decisions about America’s national security. If we don’t have everyone on the field—Americans of all faiths, creeds and colors — then we are competing with one hand tied behind our back. We are short-changing our potential and ceding our comparative advantage.
Whatever path you choose, set the bar high. It’s not enough just to reach a level or two beyond those who came before you. Even if you are the first in your family to go to college, don’t let your Howard degree become your greatest achievement. Just because you graduate from a great school, don’t think you’ve made it. Strive to accomplish something big that will leave a lasting impact on others.
And when you succeed, as I know you will, we need you to turn back, give back, and bring others up with you. As our tremendous First Lady recently said, “when you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. No, you reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”
Now, more than ever, we must understand that, as we tackle great challenges at home and abroad, we are all in this together. It’s not enough just to believe in yourself. You’ve got to believe in something bigger than yourselves. You have got to believe in each other. You have got to believe in our great country. You’ve got to understand that all of us are diminished when one of us falls behind. A few weeks ago, President Obama reminded us of that deeply American truth. He said: “We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.”
Progress depends on each of us and all of us. No one person, however talented, however visionary, can forge great change alone. Never forget: change does not just happen. Change comes when we, the people, demand it. Change comes when each and every one of us lifts our voices, organizes, registers and votes. Change comes when Americans from all stages of life and all ages of life unite in common cause. Change does not get handed down on a platter from above. Change boils up from below. Change comes when citizens decide they will not be denied.
You. Me. Him. Her. All of us.
I cannot wait to see what the generation after Joshua will do.
I know it will be worthy of you and of our ancestors.
Go tackle that unfinished work. Go forward with the great work of perfecting our union. Go forth and make the world safer, more just and more free.
Let’s finish what we started.
That’s the Howard way, and that’s the American way.
Thank you, and God bless you.
This site is managed by U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York City and the Bureau of Public Affairs in Washington, DC. External links to other Internet sites should not be construed as an endorsement of the views or privacy policies contained therein.