Letter to the Graduates

Dear Graduates:

On the eve of this most important personal and professional achievement, I offer my heartfelt congratulations.

Thirty-five years ago, I graduated from Howard University. As much as my classmates and I were concerned about our (final) final exams and saying our goodbyes to friends and faculty, we were even more concerned about lunch-counter sit-ins, freedom marches, voting rights legislation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s exhortations against violence and the assassination of Malcolm X. Our commencement speaker was U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

In his remarks, President Johnson pledged an all-out effort to include 
Blacks into the mainstream of American society. “In far too many ways,” he said, “American Negroes have been another nation: deprived of freedom, crippled by hatred, the doors of opportunity closed to hope.” He reminded us that it was “not enough to open the gates of opportunity. All...citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.”

In 35 years, we have made great strides in attaining justice and equality for African Americans, many of which were led by sons and daughters of Howard University. More important, however, has been the ability of Howard University’s alumni to effect positive human solutions for a global population. Our legacy is built squarely upon our capacity to provide leadership for America and the Global Community.

You will soon become a part of this rich legacy. I ask that you sustain it by upholding our motto, veritas et utilitas, truth and service. In the year 2000, many still do not enjoy the freedoms that we so often take for granted. Some not of Howard pedigree may deem it appropriate to be unconcerned with causes undertaken by our predecessors. We know, however, that they are shortsighted.

Your requirement to serve in the year 2000 is no less important or urgent than it was in 1867. Today’s assault on unfair and illegal labor practices here and abroad requires the exact sense of justice with which Frederick Douglass sought to unravel the binding web of slavery more than 100 years ago. The alarming, disproportionate incidence of disease in the African American and Third World communities today calls out for cures requiring the same relentless curiosity that led Dr. Charles Drew to discover a method for preserving blood plasma some 50 years ago. The lack of technology resources for inner-city and impoverished children around the world today requires a degree of indignation identical to that which led Thurgood Marshall to argue Brown v. the Board of Education more than 40 years ago. And the need to restore and develop urban economies, nationally and internationally, requires the same basic sense of vision with which Housing and Urban Development Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris forged long-overdue solutions more than 25 years ago.

Each of these individuals walked through Howard University’s gates. Now, as you depart through these gates, you do so on their shoulders with the certain knowledge that your shoulders will carry many more.

As you leave the hallowed grounds of Howard University to pursue myriad fields of endeavor, I share with you this truth: there is no higher calling, no richer treasure in life than to serve. That, sons and daughters, is the toll that opens the gate.


H. Patrick Swygert