SEPTEMBER 26, 2003
President Swygert; Howard trustees; faculty and staff; alumni; Howard students:  Good morning!

I’m deeply honored to be standing before you to deliver today’s Convocation Address and to formally usher in Howard University’s 136th year of academic excellence.

For me, this is a unique privilege. I may be the proudest alumnus ever to graduate from Morgan State, but I place my loyalty and commitment to Howard on the same high level.

For one thing, Howard University plays a central role in my personal well being.  Four physicians at Howard University Hospital are responsible for my medical care. I mention my doctors because, as it happens, I’m recovering from recent back surgery and all four of them tell me I should be home in bed.

Normally, I would take my doctors’ advice. But this day was just too important for me to miss for two reasons:

First off, I’m here to welcome back Howard University’s latest generation of leaders.  As a trustee of this institution, I’m fully vested in Howard’s legacy as the single most influential producer of African-American leaders our nation has ever known.

Among them were the architects of the legal strategy that dismantled legal segregation in this country: the great Thurgood Marshall and faculty and students of the Howard Law School.

The 50th anniversary of their great victory in Brown v. the Board of Education provides an appropriate moment to reflect on what Howard University has meant to America.  Fifty years later, every student in this room has made a sacred pact with the builders of that legacy to be worthy of it.

That is a heavy responsibility … and if any of you were somehow not conscious of it when you walked in here this morning, you’re going to be living and breathing it when I’m through talking … I promise you.

Secondly, I had to be here for the man being celebrated by the Howard University Board of Trustees later today, the chairman of Johnson Publishing, my friend and mentor, John H. Johnson.

Much like Howard University itself, John Johnson helped shape the world you and I live in.  And if you walked in here not knowing how important a man John Johnson is, well, you’re going to walk out understanding that, too.

On a personal note, I’ve known John and his lovely wife Eunice for 30 years.  And I’ve watched their daughter grow into a formidable corporate leader in her own right.  I’d like to ask her to stand . . . Johnson Publishing CEO Linda Johnson Rice, ladies and gentlemen.

More than anything, students, I’m here to impress upon you the sacrifices that have been made so that you could be here today.  The hours you will spend at this institution – and the opportunities that lay before you – don’t belong to you alone.  They belong to men and women who fought battles large and small to ensure that your potential could be realized to the fullest.

At this point, I’m sure I sound to some of you like one of those old guys who like to tell young people how hard things USED to be.  My grandfather was one of those guys.  When I was around 10, I got up the nerve to ask him for a quarter on top of my allowance to buy some ice cream.

Of course all I got was the old story about how he walked five miles barefoot in 10 feet of snow to get to school each morning.  Even at age 10, it occurred to me that they probably didn’t get that much snow in the West Indies where my grandfather grew up.  I might have pointed that out to him but then I don’t think I’d have lived to see 11.

There’s a serious side to this.  My family did not want me to ever forget that every opportunity that I enjoyed was the result of someone else’s sacrifice.  Your generation has inherited perhaps the greatest era of opportunity that African Americans have ever known.

It didn’t just happen.

Thurgood Marshall attended Howard because the University of Maryland rejected him on the basis of color.  Just a few years later, Marshall’s legal brilliance would convince the Supreme Court to unanimously shift the law of the land to the side of righteousness.  Their ruling in Brown would force the University of Maryland – and every other American institution – to abandon the policy of racial exclusion.

What does the Brown victory mean to you today, 50 years later?  For one thing, it means that you are attending this historically black university, not because you HAVE to, but because you CHOOSE to.  You’re here because you’ve elected to be a part of the tradition of social transformation that Howard represents.  You’re here because you want to move our people … and this nation … forward.

To do that, you must be just as committed to excellence … just as dedicated to the welfare of our people … as those who came before you.  Because the challenges you will face when you leave this institution are as great as at any time in our history.

We are a nation at war.  The global consequences of our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan will certainly be with us for some years to come.  You will have to confront them.

Here at home, the AIDS epidemic is wrecking havoc within the African- American community, a crisis made worse by our collective silence and the absence of leadership.  Your children will live with the consequences.

And 50 years after Brown, we have not yet rid ourselves of racism, poverty, and lack of opportunity.  African Americans still face racial disparities in health care, public education, and the workplace.  Affirmative action is on the chopping block.  And even the legal precedents that Marshall and others set in ending segregation are under constant threat by the far right.

Add to the mix a perilous and uncertain economy that only tightens the vise on peoples’ hopes.

Unlike my grandfather, I don’t have to talk about how bad things USED to be … you’ve got your work cut out for you right now.

But remember that tough times are nothing new for us.  From slavery to Jim Crow and onward, “easy” has never been a part of our vocabulary.

You will face challenges.  But you will overcome them … and perhaps change the world in the process … if you stay focused … if you stay determined … and if you do your best to prepare yourselves for opportunity.

THIS institution will prepare you.  It will challenge your abilities and enrich your character.  It will provide you with a wealth of skills and experiences that you will draw upon the rest of your days.

Howard will do all this and more for you …IF… and only IF … you accept the challenge … IF you accept responsibility for the future you want to live in … IF you agree to carry the mantle of excellence and social reform that is the hallmark of Howard University.

And don’t think that I’ve forgotten the mantle of financial success.  You’re not going to college to end up martyrs on poverty row.  You want to do good while also doing well for yourselves.  I’m a businessman. I fully believe that if you earn the trappings of success, by all means take them.

Just remember that the house, the Mercedes, and the Breitling watch carry the same price tag – responsibility.  In short, I want you all to be financially secure so you can give back.

In this regard, you have no shortage of role models if you’re in need of inspiration … none are more inspirational than the man being honored today, my friend John Johnson.

Here, students, is a life worth emulating.

He was a child of Jim Crow segregation. To ensure her young son’s education, John Johnson’s widowed mother moved the family to Chicago from Arkansas City, Arkansas, in the 1930s.  She had to, because at that time there was no public school in Arkansas City that would admit an African-American child.

It was a temporary obstacle. From the start, John Johnson was ambitious and not afraid of hard work.  Before long, he hatched his vision to create a series of publications that would reveal and honor the lives of African Americans, in all our diversity, depth, and dignity. It was an ambitious vision for a black man in the pre-Civil Rights era.  But he was determined.

Starting with a loan for $500, he went on to build an empire that encompassed Ebony and Jet magazines, TV and radio programs, an insurance firm, hair care and beauty product companies and fashion shows.

John Johnson was the first publisher to open the eyes of Madison Avenue to the multi-billion dollar influence of the African-American consumer market.   By showing the profitability of using black models and black-themed campaigns, he literally changed the way American companies market their products to black consumers.

Finally, John ushered into being the first generation of African-American professionals in publishing and advertising.  I’m not exaggerating when I say there would be no Earl Graves without John Johnson.

His personal success has been great.  And all of you can learn a lot from his tenacity and his integrity. But the real lesson to be learned from John Johnson is that he has not forgotten where he came from … or the sacrifices others made on his behalf.

Time and again, he has contributed his time and money to nurturing the next generation of leaders. His recent $4 million gift to the communications school here at Howard University speaks to the depth of his commitment.

Students, that kind of commitment has no price. For each of you, it translates into greater opportunity and a better chance at success.  Don’t waste it.

Remember, the choices before you are limitless.  Take a good look around.  Somewhere in this room is the next John Johnson … the next Thurgood Marshall.  Indeed, the first African-American president of the United States may be in this room … and perhaps I’ll be able to say I helped inspire her.

But whatever heights you reach, you must reach back. Whatever success you acquire, you must be willing to leverage that success into opportunities for all African Americans.

That is what a “leader” is … and building leaders is what Howard University is all about.

As I’ve said, each of you has a heavy mantle to carry.  I want you to show me that you’re worthy to bear the weight.  Now students, I’m going to issue six challenges. And whether you’re a freshman or starting your last semester, when I issue a challenge you’re willing to take on, I want you to stand and say “I accept.”

And if you’re still sitting when I’m done, you get to don’t graduate, OK?

Just to make sure you’re serious, I want John Johnson to stand with me as I issue The Six Challenges.  John …

If you’re a member of Howard’s School of Communications, I challenge you to carry the mantle of John Johnson … to fight for accurate representations of our people.  I challenge you to refuse to wallow in the negativity, violence, and modern minstrel behavior that pass for black media representation today.  Do you accept?

If you attend the Howard University School of Law, I challenge you to carry the mantle of Thurgood Marshall and fight all attacks on liberty and equality in our courts – a battle that still continues 50 years after Brown v. the Board of Education.  Do you accept?

If you attend the business school, I challenge you to carry the mantle of A.G. Gaston and other business pioneers. I challenge you to rebuild our communities, restore confidence in the economy, create jobs, and heal the economic wounds we've suffered in the wake of war and recession.  Do you accept?

If you’re attending the Howard University School of Medicine, I challenge you to carry the mantle of former faculty member Dr. Charles Drew and now, today, Dr. LaSalle LeFall.  I challenge you to find new treatments for AIDS and hypertension and diabetes and other illnesses that disproportionately affect our people.  Do you accept?

If you are in ROTC, I challenge you to carry the mantle of the millions who’ve died defending our democratic freedoms and to protect our shores from the threat of terrorism.  Do you accept?

And finally … If you are here in preparation for a career in education, in social work, in nursing, in engineering, as a member of the clergy, or any other field of endeavor … then I challenge you to carry on the Howard University tradition of achievement and service that Dr. Swygert leads us in every day… I challenge you to be worthy of that tradition … I challenge you to carry the mantle of your predecessors faithfully and with honor.  DO YOU ACCEPT?


Each of you has a responsibility to be a leader ... to be the architects of a new era of opportunity, equality, and justice for African Americans and all Americans.  I know you will do your best …and inspire generations to come by the light of your example.

John, do you think they’re ready?

Then good luck and God be with you.  Thank you.