Challenge to Generation D:
Beyond the Color Line
William E. Kennard
Federal Communications Commission
Thank you, President Swygert, and thank
you, Chairman Savage, for this honor. I feel very privileged to
address your commencement ceremony on this glorious day.
My congratulations to the graduates.
I commend each of you—especially students graduating magna cum laude
or summa cum laude or cum laude, and all the parents who are just
thinking, “It’s finally graduation day, thank you, Lordy”—I
congratulate you all.
I did not attend Howard. But I am
an heir to this institution. We all are. Because, each of
us stands on the shoulders of those who walked the grounds of this
We stand on the shoulders of Howard
University President Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, who helped introduce Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr. to nonviolence; and America became an heir to a
revolution for social justice.
We stand on the shoulders of Howard
University’s Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who authored new chapters in the
history of our people; and all Americans became heirs to a history as
rich, as diverse, as compelling as those represented in this
millennial graduating class.
We stand on the shoulders of Howard
alumni Toni Morrison and Zora Neal Hurston. They painted a
portrait of the African-American family; and all Americans became
heirs to stories so rich, so textured, so lovingly detailed that they
changed the face of 20th century American literature.
We stand on the shoulders of Howard’s
Charles Hamilton Houston. He made the law school a civil rights
citadel where lawyers like Thurgood Marshall, Vernon Jordan and
President James Madison Nabrit Jr. were trained to battle for justice;
and all Americans, all Americans, became heirs to laws that can, in
the words of the prophet Amos, allow “justice to roll down like
waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
And we stand on the shoulders of
Howard’s Dr. Benjamin Hooks. He was a pioneer of civil rights
as the head of the NAACP and the first African-American member of the
Federal Communications Commission.
As the FCC’s first African-American
chairman, I stand on his shoulders.
I know one thing, I would not be standing
before you today as Chairman of the FCC were it not for this
Howard’s story is our story, the story
of African-American families.
We must recognize those most responsible
for this graduation: the mothers and fathers, the grandmothers and
grandfathers, the aunts and uncles.
These are the people who cosigned the
student loans, loaded the U-Haul trucks, paid the tuition or promised
to, those who sent the care packages and paid for the collect calls,
who wired the money—who borrowed money from your aunt—who borrowed
from your uncle—who gave the money to your mother—who pretended to
loan it to you.
Today we recognize them all. As
you graduate into this *.com economy, never, EVER forget those who taught you your ABC’s.
Thinking about families, I cannot help
but think about my own grandfather and the lessons he taught his
My grandfather—his name was James
Kennard—worked on the network that formed the foundation of the
Industrial Age. He was a Pullman porter on the railroads—it
was in fact the best job a black man could have on the railroad in
My grandfather was a brilliant man.
A learned man. A beautiful writer. He could quote
everything from the Bible to Shakespeare. And my grandfather was
completely self-taught—a man whose only professor was his own
And yet he rode the rails for years and
could go nowhere. He could be a part of the most important
industrial network of his time, so long as he stayed in his place as
the man who carried the bags.
My grandfather wanted to find a better
life for his family. So he left the segregated south and moved
them to California.
But even in California, the black
children would go to one school, the white children to another.
It turns out that the black school was across town. The white
school was a few blocks away.
When my father was five, my grandfather
sent him off to the neighborhood school. And they sent my dad
The principal said, “colored children
can’t go to this school.”
The next day, my grandfather dressed my
father up and sent him back to that school. And they sent him
home again. My grandfather said, “you belong there.”
So he sent him back again. And again. It was tough on my
dad—kids used to chase him home and throw rocks at him. But he
was quick and wiry—like me. So he made it.
And finally, the principal relented. “Okay,” he said. “We’ll take the Kennard boy.”
My grandfather taught my dad that when the
doors of opportunity are closed, you knock. And when nobody
answers, you keep knocking. And if nobody answers that door of
opportunity, then you break that door down and walk on through.
My grandfather taught his son to smash
through glass ceilings maintained by the insecure and the incompetent.
My grandfather taught his son that when a road block lies in your
path, you drive under it, around it, through it, over it—that you
let nothing stand in the way of your dreams.
That was my grandfather’s lesson to
my father and my father’s lesson to me. And I know it is
Howard’s lesson to you.
Today you receive degrees in your diverse
fields—engineering, literature, medicine and law. But you go
forth from this campus as more than specialists in any field.
You are heirs to a tradition—a tradition that teaches us we can do
anything we dream and demands that we bring everyone along.
It’s a powerful tradition embodied in
your motto: “Leadership for America and the Global Community.”
Now this tradition certainly echoes in the
story of Andrew Young.
Andy is another distinguished graduate of
this institution—an heir to this tradition. Andy is a pioneer
of the civil rights movement. He was a mayor—a
congressman—an ambassador to the United Nations.
For Andy Young, a lifetime of
achievement began by asking one question. In his memoir, An Easy
Burden, he tells the story that after three years at Howard of not
seriously applying himself, he had the uneasy feeling that he was not
doing all that he could with what he had.
In the summer before his senior year at
Howard, Andy returned to his hometown of New Orleans. He ran
into an old friend named Lincoln. They talked about the
different paths they had taken in life.
Despite growing up at the same time, in
the same community, they didn’t have the same opportunity.
Andy’s mother and father were able to
send him to college. Lincoln’s mother struggled to raise eight
children by herself. While Andy was looking forward to a life of
new opportunity, Lincoln had dropped out of school. One thing
led to another, and he finally ended up in jail.
Andy returned to Howard unable to put
Lincoln out of his mind. Thinking about Lincoln, a verse from
the book of Luke tugged at Andy’s soul:
“To whom much is given, much is
And Andy asked himself: “What will be
required of me?”
We all know that Andy Young answered that
question with words and work, declaration and deeds, a lifetime of
service and sacrifice.
And that brings me to my challenge for
this graduating class—for you the heirs to the tradition of
Howard—this tradition of producing leaders for America and the
To whom much is given, much is
Much has been given to you. I call
you GENERATION D, the digital generation. You will graduate into
a world where the Internet will give you instantaneous access to
global markets; where you can use a device that you will hold in the
palm of your hand to access more information than is contained in the
Howard University library. And I know you will go forward to
invent even greater technologies and with them you will achieve what
we cannot even imagine today.
But the promise of this digital era is
not just building smarter devices. It is building stronger
Technology cannot give every American
access to opportunity until every American has access to technology.
At the dawn of the last century, W.E.B.
DuBois said, “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.” At the dawn of this
century, our challenge is to make sure that the color line does not
determine who is on-line.
Thirty-five years ago, President Lyndon
Johnson stood here and delivered a landmark address on civil rights.
He said those now famous words: “You
cannot take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and
liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then
say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still
justly believe that you have been completely fair.”
What Lyndon Johnson said 35 years ago
is even more true today. Because today the race is being run on
Internet time. The race track is a global network of fiber-optic
lines, broadband cables and wireless connections over which ones and
zeroes race at Internet speed. Those who start behind will stay
behind—and this race runs so fast they will never catch up.
And we are already off to an uneven
start. Blacks and Hispanics are only 40 percent as likely as
whites to have Internet access at home. This gap between the
information haves and haves-not is called the digital divide.
Now some people argue there is no
digital divide. In fact, it is an argument brought to you by the
same folks who say we live in a color-blind society. Frankly, I
don’t know what country those people live in. It certainly
isn’t the America I know.
That is why I have devoted my tenure at
the FCC to bridging this divide of opportunity—to preventing the
color line from deciding who is on-line—to ensuring that every
American has access to the tools of the 21st century.
I believe that ensuring that all
Americans have access to technology is the civil rights challenge of
this new millennium.
We will not meet this challenge until
all of our children are as interested in becoming Michael Dell as they
are in becoming Michael Jordan—when they would rather have the
latest laptops than the latest high-tops.
And for me, meeting that
challenge—embracing public service—has been the most exhilarating
experience of my life.
I have seen the faces of children in our
inner cities light up as they surf the web for the first time and*then
I’ve known the reward of crafting the policies that will wire a
million classrooms to the Internet.
Thanks to the vision of President
Clinton and Vice President Gore, since 1997 this country has invested
10 billion dollars to connect our schools to the Internet.
It’s a program called the E-rate. And I am proud to say that
in three years we have wired one million classrooms to the Internet,
improving the lives of 40 million American children.
And I have visited the homes of Native
Americans on reservations in New Mexico and Arizona. Too many of
them are still waiting for a telephone. I heard their stories
too. They told me about what it is like to live in the 21st century without a telephone, when you can’t call your doctor or an
ambulance or the police.
Then I’ve known the satisfaction of
working with my FCC colleagues on proposals to bring basic telephone
service to over a million low-income Indian people on tribal lands.
I have had the privilege of meeting
almost every one of the CEOs of the high-tech sector—these 20- and
30-something billionaires who, overnight, have created almost
unimaginable wealth. And, you know, not one of those CEOs who
have walked through my door is African-American, and that has got to
change. And you are going to change it.
I have heard the stories of Americans
with disabilities who worry that this Internet revolution will pass
them by*and then celebrated with them as we created the rules to
ensure that they will have access to this wondrous technology.
I am proud of the work that we have
done to bring all Americans into the Information Age together—to
bridge the digital divide. But we have only just begun.
And what my generation has done is but a prelude to what this
generation can do—as heirs to the Howard tradition. So I want
to leave you with one question: what is required of you?
What is required of you? The very
same determination that enabled your families here today to put
sacrifice before self, to put your tuition before their vacations,
your graduation before their retirement.
What is required of you? Not
merely net worth but the wealth of character that declares across this
yawning digital divide: leave no one behind, bring everyone along.
What is required of you? Not
merely a degree but the knowledge that a Howard University diploma
means that you are not only qualified to compete but blessed to serve.
What is required of you? Service.
So much so, the legacy of the Howard tradition bears eloquent witness
to the truth of the poet who wrote:
No vision and you perish;
No ideal, and you’re lost;
Your heart must ever cherish,
Some faith at any cost.
Some hope, some dream to cling to,
Some rainbow in the sky,
Some melody to sing to,
Some service that is high.
What is required of you? That
when the call is heard, to answer in the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“Here I am. Send me.”
What is required of you? To heed
the book of Ephesians, “having done all to stand, just stand.”
And now having studied, worked, saved,
persevered, persisted through sacrifice and dreamed simply stand.
As you receive your diplomas today, stand.
Stand with my grandfather.
Stand with your mothers.
Stand with your fathers.
Stand with all the members of your family.
Stand with your classmates.
Stand with your professors.
And stand with the untold multitude of
Howard alumni who brought you to where you are—that you might lead
this nation to where it should be.
Congratulations and thank you very