Charter Day 2004 Convocation Speech
Ossie Davis 


Mr. President, Board of Trustees, faculty, students and friends:

We note with extreme delight that the turning of the season, the passing of the years, have finally brought that singular anniversary that stands in our regards like a second emancipation, which we as a people should be more than glad to remember.

For it was the 17th of May, in the year of our Lord, 1954 that grandeur raised its voice and spoke the truth.

The Supreme Court, which had not always been the Black man’s friend and neighbor, was all of a sudden the conscience of the nation, raising its voice, and in speaking for the nation spoke for us all.

Brown v. Board of Education, the words are made of wood; but still they sing … Angelic high point in American jurisprudence. Brown v. Board of Education, awkward, stiff and legalistic, hardly the appropriate title for a poem; but it should be. This is a thing the soul should celebrate—time has worked its magic-rendering judgment, in the parlance of the people.

Brown v. Board of Education still says it all. Whoever touched the case became a hero, where ever it walked, the place was holy ground. How proud we are, we here at Howard University … To be standing a single stone’s throw away from where history threw first the gauntlet down. Where inspiration and determination raised their first faint flags…Where Howard Law was born to answer prayer.

Howard Law—Make a note of the name. Fifty years ago, it was, the courts spoke and out of their unanimous mouths came Brown v. Board of Education. We hold that in the field of public education, separate is inherently unequal and has no place. How long, America did it take you to see the simple fact and say it clear? Oh, let us mark the day and hold it hallowed!

Now, it was natural that the showdown between Black folks and the American constitution had to come, and when it came the battlefield would be education, it’s always been about education, even more than about wealth, or servitude and status, and family, creed and color, knowledge has always been power. We knew that then, we know that now. And that is why this celebration, at this time, and in this place is so important. Knowledge is power and as such holds every key to every chain and shackle, it always did, it always will.

We knew, even then, even when we were slaves, that if we could find what the master kept hidden in the books beside his bed, we could get a taste of the freedom he enjoyed; and we wouldn’t be slaves no more, no matter what you called it … they knew it, we knew it. It was as simple as that. And so, what the Civil War had started with guns and cannons and bayonets, we planned to finish with books. Slavery had left its stigma in us and on us, but give us a book and we would wash it clean.

So, it was when four million of us left the plantation to join the quarter millions already free, freedom to us meant getting an education. And there were many, White and Black, who helped us along our journey. Schools, academies, institutes, and here and there a college where possible, and even a few who set themselves up as universities, Fisk, Atlanta, Hampton, and of course, Howard … Howard University.

Howard, midwife, wet nurse, mother, was never another American university called upon to involve itself more deeply, in the birthing of a people? Make itself more umbilical, urging us on from cotton patch to culture? … Was Harvard? Was Princeton? … Was Yale? Howard University created to do a great service to the country. A service that led by hook—and sometimes by crook—straight to the doorway of the American Constitution, and through the door, to Brown v. Board of Education. That is the story of Howard Law, and this is where it began. The vigil keepers and how they kept the watch. This is the story, but it still has a villain.

For a moment, after the Civil War, it seemed that Black citizenship had come into its own. The 13th Amendment ending slavery, the 14th Amendment making all citizens equal, and the 15th Amendment giving us the right to vote had been added to the basic tally of the law of the land.

But then, strange things began to happen. Men, good, solid Americans who thought they wished us well, ran head-on into the American dilemma hidden in their bosom on the battlefield that happened in their heart. They could accept the Black man’s right to be free, but when we asserted our equal right to be equal under the 14th Amendment, they froze … caught in the trammels of greed and jealous contradictions. Little by little, the laws became subverted. The liberties we had won were compromised, and one by one began to be taken away. That’s when we learned this puzzling thing about liberty: the less you have to begin with; the more chance you have of losing what remains; you fight like hell to protect the right to fight. We watched with deep dismay as Jim Crow, segregation, and discrimination, and lynching, and racism, little by little began eating away at all our rights and privileges. Yes, we were citizens, right enough, but citizens second class … the status of the powerless and the oppressed.

Who would save us from our former saviors?
Where could we turn for succor but to our own?
Who would keep watch over dwindling civic assets?

We begged, we petitioned, we sued, hoping against hope to find refuge in the Constitution, that the 14th Amendment—created for that purpose—would come to our aid and rescue. But fortune set its stony face against us. The Supreme Court when it spoke with forked tongue, slammed the last door in our faces. They called it Plessy v. Ferguson. They said that regarding our basic rights, the separated-segregated Jim Crow world to which we had been consigned was plenty good enough. In 1896, separate but equal became the law of the land. We knew it was a crime, we knew it was a lie, a world split down the middle, but it was all we had. So, we set out to make this wickedness work to our advantage. Eternal vigilance was the heavy price we paid. And Howard Law set out to become the people’s eyes.

Brown v. Board of Education. No child should walk abroad without this tale; which by now is surely a psychic landmark in the American saga. Surely the story of that famed decision must be familiar to everybody by now. The pain and anguish, the suffering and sorrow out of which it grew is at the center of the American experience—it belongs to everybody. I don’t have to shut my eyes to see it still, the kind of life we Black folks lived under Jim Crow and segregation. Consult your memory as I now do mine. See again exactly what I mean. All I can see when I look back is the law of this blessed land celebrating its own corruption at my expense. And yet, even then, at the bottom of our despair was always hope.

But hope alone is never, ever enough. Always there is a need for faith, and labor, and luck. Nobody understood this better than Mordecai Johnson. And when he became president of Howard University in 1926, he knew that he’d been called and who had called him. The first African American to hold that office, he set out to do what history demanded. The 14th Amendment was slowly being taken from us. Mordecai Johnson – and many others just like him – wanted it back. Slavery was over, but America was still a racist country. The pathway up and out was self-knowledge, which lay through the rough terrain of racism and greed. The only safe way out was to follow our own example.

And what a cast of characters Black history provided.

Let’s start off first with this giant of a man, Mordecai Johnson, himself, who looked upon the Howard Law School—which had been there since the very beginning – and found it wanting. He made it a three-year day school and promoted Charles Houston and put him in charge. Charles was a legal worker and a practitioner. Charles was not only teaching, but he did a lot of work on civil rights cases for the NAACP and became quite close to the man who headed the organization, Walter White. Charles also brought another brilliant legal mind, William Hastie. The two men were cousins, and they had a protégé whom they both loved, Thurgood Marshall. Then there was Oliver Hill, James Nabrit and others. Howard Law was the place they all intersected and plotted and argued and strategized, and from which they scurried off to battle. They took separate but equal as a racist insult, an outrage which lived beyond the law and common sense. They swore they would attack it, on its own presumptions, which were easy enough for all to understand. According to Plessy v. Ferguson – the year the Supreme Court speaks with forked tongue – Black folks could be legally excluded from every amenity the states offered White folks -- schools, colleges, universities, buses, books, libraries -- as long as these amenities are also offered to Blacks in equal measure. That’s what it said; but one look at what was really happening showed that’s not what it meant. In almost every case, what Blacks received was in almost every way, less and inferior to what Whites got. Black leadership saw the contradiction and went on the attack. If the South really wanted two school systems instead of one, then they could be forced to pay for two school systems instead of one. Howard Law set out to make them live up to their constitutional obligations.

And gave America a chance to save its soul and Howard Law was always there, watching, keeping vigilant, we knew the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. So it was then, and so it is now. It might be easy to say that the very success of our endeavors, leading as it did to Brown v. Board of Education, which became the spark plug of a revolution that changed this country forever. You may say under those circumstances who needs now Howard University? It’s all done, it’s all taken care of. But we understand that democracy in all cases is a very delicate operation, and attention must always be paid. No, now is not the time to take Howard from us, now is not the time to take away our guardian, now is not the time to take away the vigil keepers. Strange things are happening in the land. New laws are being proposed, laws, which attack the very basic fundamentals of our freedom. Somebody must keep watch, somebody must stand up, somebody must protest. Who from the experience in the past would be more qualified than Howard Law to do just that?

Now as then, Howard Law, the people’s watch continuing great vigil-keepers all. With deep and sleepless eyes, our shield and buckler, against all inquisitions, all patriotic acts that say one thing but truly mean another. It is now we need the watchers, now we need the couriers, now we need those who understand the delicacy of the democratic proposition, who understand fully that the price of freedom is always eternal vigilance. Howard University has more experience in that field than any other institution in the country that I know. And I am pleased to be here.

Now Mr. President, I am deeply honored by the occasion you have bestowed upon me, and I cannot let it pass without making a few personal observations. You have alluded to my status on this campus, and I am proud that I have a mother who is still alive at 105. Think what she must feel when I tell her that I am an Annenberg Professor at Howard University. And though I deeply appreciate the honor, I know that in myself I am much too small to fit the dimensions of this occasion. So I am taking the privilege of bringing along others to fatten up my credentials. You’ve seen and met my wife, Ruby Dee. Next to her is our daughter, Dr. Mohammed, and next to her is her husband, who is studying law. And somewhere on the premises is our grandson; he always comes to the campus when I do.

It has been my great pleasure to come and be with the students, trying to share with them what Howard shared with me that day in August in 1935 when I first set foot on this campus and a whole new world was opened up to me. And there were those who explained and trained and told me how to make a living, how to earn an income, how to do a good day’s work. But an education, they said, consists of more than that; life is more than bread and meat. And at Howard, we try to emphasize that. We speak in the words of Dr. DuBois, and we speak of life. We think of it as lit by some large vision of goodness and beauty and truth. Howard University, Howard Law School…reared against the eastern sky, proudly there on Hilltop high. Howard Law, still try, still true … keeping watch for me and you.

Thank you