Commencement Address of Ken Chenault
Chairman and CEO, American Express Company
Howard University
May 10, 2008

President Swygert, members of the Board of Trustees, administration and faculty, distinguished guests, and of course, Howard University Class of 2008... it is a great privilege to join all of you here today. And it’s a challenge, as well.

I started to realize just how much of challenge this would be after reading an article in The Hilltop last month.

Howard had announced me as its choice for orator, and a graduating senior was quoted as saying: “No matter who they got, nobody is as cool as Oprah.”

For a brief, fleeting moment, I thought of trying to compete.

I thought: what if, like Oprah once did for her television audience, I gave every single graduate a brand new car?

But then I realized it wouldn’t work.

This is Howard. Where would you park?

So instead, I’ll make but one promise. I will be brief.

That way you can spend more time celebrating with those responsible for the remarkable achievement that is a diploma from the capstone of Black higher education. Howard University.

Because while you get credit – there are others.

Those whose support has been unwavering. Those whose lessons have been life-long. Those whose love has been, and will always be, unconditional.

Administration and faculty… friends… and most of all, parents and families… to you I say: your pride is more than justified.

Congratulations on a job well done.

And, of course, to the Howard University Class of 2008… you did it.

Yes, you did it. But you’re not done.

Now you carry on and add to the legacy of this institution. And what a legacy it is.

This great school has influenced black America – a point exemplified in a truth President Swygert has often expressed: That Howard University is so threaded through the post-Civil War history of Black America … that there are few black Americans who don’t have some connection with it.

But more than that, Howard has influenced America itself. And indeed the world at large.

It has done so thanks to the iconic alumni whose names and accomplishments you know so well, which led the legendary dean of Howard Law School, Charles Hamilton Houston, to describe this university as the West Point of the Civil Rights movement.

But it has also spread its influence in what I’ll call quieter ways…

Those who might not have been as well known…

But who also left this place with a profound confidence that they would meet what the writer Albert Murray called our “indelible ancestral imperative to do something and become something and be somebody.”

Like a young man named Hortenius.

He enrolled in the College of Dentistry.

And while he was here, he noticed a young woman walking on campus.

Her name was Anne Quick.

She was also a graduate student, working towards a degree and a career as a dental hygienist.

Unfortunately, as fast as she appeared, she was gone.

Until one day… the boy finally met the girl at the laundry on campus.

He introduced himself. And because he couldn’t impress her with his grades – he graduated at the top of his class, but so did she – he decided on another approach.

Hortenius volunteered to carry Anne’s laundry.

They fell in love. They graduated in 1939, and soon got married.

And then, Hortenius Chenault and his wife Anne Quick Chenault started a family.

And those family ties to Howard have expanded since.

Albert Cassell, the grandfather of my wife, Kathryn, was one of the early architects of this campus.

In fact, he was the architect for the Founders Library and several other buildings.

My mother-in-law, Elaine Bridgette Hancock is a graduate of Howard, as was my father-in-law Victor L. Hancock from both the university and the Dental School.

So my connection with this school is direct. And it fills me with enormous pride to come to the place my parents and parents-in-law admired so much.

I should add, my mother is just as proud that I’m here and regrets that she could not join us today.

She’s now 94 years old.

But she’d agree: I’m here this morning not just because Howard is where my parents met…. I’m here because of what Howard meant. How it prepared them, as it has prepared you, for what comes next.

Because this special place gives you the training and tools to excel, whatever your chosen profession may be.

But it also gives you the fortitude to overcome obstacles – wherever and whenever they may arise.

Howard doesn’t just teach skills and hone your ability to succeed. Howard also shapes the attitude needed to succeed.

My father would go on to pass the New York state dental licensing exam with the highest score recorded to date.

After that, he decided to serve his country.

Yet, after enlisting during World War II, he c ouldn’t join the US Army Dental Corps.

It was segregated.

But this was hardly enough to stop my father.

He met and befriended some foreign officers… made some inquiries… and then joined the more accommodating European-based Allied Forces Dental Society.

He would tell me and my brothers and sister at the dinner table: “No one was going to tell me what I can do.”

He believed that deeply and made sure his children believed it, too.

That’s why after the war, on Long Island, where we lived, my father fought to fully integrate the school system.

He would not settle for schools where African American students were automatically put in vocational programs and kept off the academic track.

Nobody was going to tell us what we could do. What we could aspire to. What we could accomplish.

Perseverance in the face of obstacles. Seriousness of purpose. Service to others.

These values are instilled. By parents. By teachers.

And most definitely by Howard.

This university prepares you in a unique and invaluable way.

My parents are a testament to that… as is every graduate before and since.

As is each and every one of you.

But Howard does even more. It prepares men and women to lead.

Let me be clear: you don’t have to be the head of a corporation, a university, or a community or civil rights organization in order to lead.

You have to overcome adversity… and inspire others to do the same.

You must have the courage to speak your convictions… and the determination to match those words with action.

You have to have integrity… and never let it be compromised.

These are the characteristics Howard has worked hard to instill in you. And I believe, they’ve been successful.

But Class of 2008, that is not only a compliment. It is the ultimate call to action.

Leading is a responsibility.

And because you’re Howard graduates, it’s really a dual responsibility, a dual obligation.

The first is the responsibility to do well.

Whatever profession you choose, wherever your training takes you, always aim to meet the extraordinarily high standards of this institution. And then, aim to exceed them.

The second is what in many ways led to this university’s founding in 1867 and has fueled its existence ever since.

It’s your responsibility to the larger African American community. To face prejudice, and make progress.

To face history and to make history.

There is no doubt that as a community we’ve done that.

We see it in the careers of three of the most important black public figures of the last two decades… all of whom came to this campus this year.

Former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder.

Present Massachusetts Governor DeVal Patrick.

And, of course, that United States Senator who is on a history-making quest… Barack Obama.

There are other signs of progress, too. Important ones.

But we’d do well to remember the Malaysian proverb: Just because the river is quiet does not mean the crocodiles have left.

We cannot deny that inequalities continue to exist.

Not when over one million African American children drop out of high school every day… that’s 7,000 students every school day… or one every 26 seconds.

Not when nearly half of all blacks fail to graduate from public high school with their class.

Not when according to a report released just this week, black men are nearly 12 times as likely to be imprisoned for the same drug convictions as adult white men.

Not when here in Washington DC the poverty rate for blacks is more than triple that of whites.

And not when so many families in New Orleans are still struggling to recover in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The challenges are real. They are serious. And we cannot afford to ignore them.

Nor can we wait for someone else to address them.

The responsibility is not just to succeed, but to help others succeed, as well.

I know you will do this, because you already have. It’s the Howard way.

I remember reading last spring about your Alternative Spring Break in New Orleans.

Many of you went to rebuild homes in the Upper Ninth Ward.

But some of you, like Cheree Sims, reported to St. Augustine, a Catholic School for boys.

At one point, Cheree couldn’t help but ask one of the students – a 14 year-old named Dorian -- "Do you guys get tired of us asking you about Katrina?"

“No. We don't get tired of talking about it,” Dorian said. “It just gets tiring to talk about it when we know nothing is being done.”

Howard, like it always has, is doing something. You are doing something. And the Alternative Spring Break is but one wonderful example.

Instead of going to the beach, or even relaxing at home… this year, over 500 students got on buses and took the 22 hour ride back to New Orleans.

Another 20 students traveled over 2000 miles away to a small village in Panama.

There, you helped restore and enhance an orphanage for young girls – girls who didn’t just come from abject poverty of the worst kind, but abusive homes, too.

You offered not only promise and hope. You were literally a lifeline.

These are no small achievements. But you’re not done.

Whether you are heading off for further study or moving into the workforce….. we need you.

Our nation needs you. Our community needs you, both in the U.S. and the world at large.

We need your energy, your intelligence and insights, your skills, your determination to take on the world, and your confidence to succeed.

Always remember your dual responsibility.

Recognize that you can contribute to a company… but also to the reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf region.

You can pursue profits and promotions… but you can also help a little girl in Panama pursue her potential.

You can build a career and start a family… and you can help close the gaps of inequality that still exist for too many in the African American community.

Face prejudice, and make progress.

Face history, and make history.

Recognize that dual responsibility and… Lead.

That is your indelible ancestral imperative.

When you meet it, you might not become as famous as Oprah.

But there are many ways to live a fulfilling, successful life.

And wherever you are and whatever you do… I will guarantee that the first steps were taken here…

Studying in Founders Library…

Participating in a spring break that you will remember always…

Laughing with friends and debating with faculty…

Or, maybe, just trying to figure out how in the world you’d get all that laundry back to your dorm room.

Howard University , Class of 2008… Congratulations.