Kweisi Mfume's
Commencement Address

See also...
» Biography of Kweisi Mfume
President Swygert, a coworker in the vineyards of justice and education and human dignity, Dr. McKenzie, Drs. Hughes, Savage, Payton, to the distinguished faculty of this great and glorious institution and all of those who serve as Trustees and most of all on this day to those beautiful young men and young women who sit in front of me who we salute today as the great and noble Class of 2005.

The light burns bright for Howard University. You are and have been a place where dreams have come true, and in the process, over 137 years, then given birth to other dreams of service and academic excellence. From your genesis in a land just up from slavery, this has served as a place where the teacher and the taught gather together to build a better world.

Members of the faculty, President Swygert, you have been entrusted with a mighty vision and you all have proven to be worthy students. You've not buried your talents in the ground but rather and instead you've invested them in our greatest asset, the fertile minds of our young people who go forth this day to set their own course.

The proverbs of Solomon remind us that wisdom, discipline, understanding, and insight are the most important things in life. Wisdom, though, is supreme it says and therefore get wisdom though it may cost you all, you must also get understanding.

So I would say to the keepers of this dream called Howard and those of you who have labored in the vineyard of change to preserve it, that although we have crossed many rivers, we still have yet another river to cross. For too many of us because of our race or because of our sex, the gate to the American mainstream still remains on this day a bridge that resolves itself into discussions on the discussions, proposals on the proposals, studies on the studies, and then another Plan B for the Plan A that failed.

Students understand just a few things on this day that will be so hard to remember long from now. Know that you must be quick to forgive and slow to condemn. That you must, this particular class, teach us all how to discern the truth from the trick. Beware of those who come to you with gifts and glad tidings who are not there in times of need for they will speak to you with the voice of Jacob but they will move with the hand of Esau. Remember that on his or her deathbed, no one ever said I wish I had more time to spend at the office. And don't forget that if you win the rat race, you're still a rat.

Today, on this special occasion I saw the faces of mothers and fathers and Godparents and aunts and uncles and grandmothers and grandfathers and brothers and sisters swelling with pride because they were walking toward the university, to the place that they had vested all of their hopes as you came once long ago, several years in fact, to begin a process that sometimes some of them did not have the ability to do.

Remember this on this day that is yours that today 40 million people woke up in this great nation without health insurance, hoping and praying that they would not get ill and their kids would not get ill because they would not know what to do. Know that tonight 36 million people in this nation will go to bed hungry, living below the poverty level and existing in pain. Understand, Class of 2005, and then show us the way to remember that on this day of graduation, too many of our public schools are overcrowded and ill-equipped, and that drugs in some of those schools are more available than textbooks.

Remember that black colleges and black universities, unlike the days of the '40s and the '50s, don't have the luxury to fight now for just more buildings and more staff. They are fighting for their very survival.

So I challenge this class, as you go forward, to make the argument in the wake of the question that people will pose when they say why do we need a black college? What's the purpose of a black university? Things have changed. People have changed. And so their mission is no longer.

On that day and in that conversation, you must execute the logic that has been embedded into you in these four years and stand up and say that as long as we have in this nation that we love a Harvard and a Yale that remain essentially WASP even though others may attend, that's not considered inconsistent, that is the American way.

That even though we have, as we do, a Brandeis and a Yeshiva that remain essentially Jewish even though others may attend, that is not inconsistent, that is in the American way.

That even though we have a Notre Dame and a Catholic University that remain essentially Catholic even though others may attend, logic must tell us that we ought to have a Howard and a Fisk, and a Morgan, and a Morehouse, and a Tuskegee even though others may attend.

On this day of graduation, brave young men and women don't sit here because they sit on front lines with rifles and with machine guns fighting overseas, guarding the things that we hold sacred and putting their lives on the line. As they sit there and you sit here, remember that while they fight the enemy from without, your charge is to fight the enemy from within. And that is an enemy of low self-esteem, an enemy of hopelessness and despair, an enemy of drug abuse, an enemy that plagues the communities that we will all go back to in just a few hours. But know that you are equipped, as a result of Howard University, that you have a different set of wings, and understand that sparrows fly in a flock but eagles soar on their own -- on their own.

For a race of people who have suffered, endured, and survived two centuries of slavery, oppression, deprivation, degradation, denial, and under-privilege, that yours is a special calling and you carry with you a special obligation.

I know it has been a long four-year period and many of you are looking forward to going into the workforce. Remember though that although the best social program is a job, jobs are not enough. Full employment was never the legitimate goal of the Civil Rights Movement. Full employment was not our goal. Full development is our goal. In slavery, we had full employment. Everybody had a job. You see in full development, employment is not inherent. But in full development, we find ourselves with all that we need.

Now I said last night and I will say to this great class that I learned long ago that commencement speeches don't have to be eternal to be unforgettable. You may applaud.

So just a few other things, then I'll let you go. Students, as you go forward from this day, don't be stymied by the agony of failure or deceived by the ecstasy of success because both can be illusions that vanish with the setting of the sun. Instead, let your failures become springboards toward greater achievement and let your successes render you sober so they can sustain you through the torment of howling winds, winds that chill us with the cold reminders of the societal challenges that you must face.

You know genius, a French philosopher once wrote, is nothing more than a greater aptitude for patience. And yet by our nature, we are impatient creatures, impatient and impervious to pain, yet we must still find it within ourselves, class, to feel the pain of others even when it is not our own. Feel the pain of the family that on this day of your great graduation grieves over the loss of another loved one, killed in the senseless act of murder on our streets, understand the feeling of despair in the face of the homeless that within a mile of this campus search for food and search for shelter, know the fear of the dying AIDS patient, waiting for the Death Angel to come.

Make your impatience a vehicle for change and let the pain of others become your herb to make you whole and never let victims come to you without some sort of attention. But also never let truth become the victim of expediency. You see the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie, which is deliberate, contrived, and dishonest, but rather and instead it is the myth, the innuendo, the accusation because they are persistent and pervasive and unrealistic. And as such, you know better than I that too many of us hold fast sometimes to the conclusions of others. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations whereas my grandmother used to say, we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.

We spent 5,000 years as a race of human beings just trying to drag ourselves out of the primeval slime by search for truth and moral absolutes yet in its purest form, truth is not a polite tap on the shoulder. It is, instead, a howling reproach.

Therefore consequentially students, the degree, the diploma that you will one day look at, the honor that you receive today will, in fact, represent many things. It will be a reward for your academic excellence. It will be a reminder of a debt that you will never be able to repay your parents. It will be both a source of relief and respect from your professors. But more than anything, it is, in fact, a license to learn.

Age has given me the arrogance and experience has given me the urgency to tell you what life looks like from my side of the river. My generation was the first to think that we might not have any time at all. And yours is the first to be born knowing it. This particular graduation brings to mind a particular reality and that is that your generation may be the last to be afforded another real chance to make a difference, another chance for you, as graduates of Howard University, to balance the scales of justice and to make them equal, another chance for you to confront the doors of opportunity and to make them open, another chance for you to seize the chains of mental bondage that grip our people at this hour, and to set and break them free.

Never let your place be with the timid. Never lose the spirit that fired your first desire to learn. Never fear to risk your political or professional lives in the service of those causes that fate has sent you to champion and to win. Go forward from this place today emboldened with courage, fired with idealism, and tempered by wisdom to do the work that God and the people of this nation have called on you to do as our best and as our brightest. Let us all dare to move forward with new directions into a world and into a future where men and women shall have learned to live by freedom and not by compulsion.

Class of 2005 know this. The promise of America is real. This land is your land. Prepare, pursue, perform, and you will prevail. But for those who understand a TV technology, let me put it to you this way.

If you are like All of My Children, the Bold and the Beautiful, sitting out there on The Edge of Night or waiting in General Hospital As The World Turns through the Days of Our Lives, if the perpetuation and survival of Howard University is not your main consideration and is not your Guiding Light, then you need not Search for Tomorrow because you will not see Another World.

Congratulations. And good luck.