Thank you, Walter Pryor, for those kind words. I'd like to congratulate Sharayah Wilson on becoming this school's first-ever Valedictorian. I’d also like to congratulate your very first Salutatorian, Raven Clay – and all of today’s award winners. It’s a privilege to share the stage with you this afternoon – and an honor to stand with National Prep’s founder and Executive Director, Jennifer Ross; your Chief Academic Officer, Dianne Brown; and all of the dedicated teachers, administrators, and staff members who have worked so hard to build such a remarkable institution in such a short time.
This is a special day. And it’s a privilege to join so many proud parents, grandparents, family members, friends, and invited guests in celebrating the achievements – and the many contributions – of the first class ever to graduate from the National Collegiate Preparatory Public Charter High School: the Class of 2013.
I’d like to thank each of the 53 distinguished graduates before me, their supporters and loved ones in this crowd, and every member of the National Prep family for the chance to share this wonderful milestone with you. As our nation’s Attorney General, I have the opportunity to speak with hundreds of college and law school students each year – here in Washington, and across the country. But it’s a rare treat for me to visit an institution like this one, and meet so many accomplished young scholars – and future leaders – at a time when your career paths have yet to be determined, and so many doors – to education, to opportunity, and to the men and women you will become – remain wide open.
Already, each of you has proven your willingness to work hard in pursuit of ambitious goals. Many of you have had to overcome obstacles, and confront significant challenges, to be in this crowd today. And all of you have demonstrated your ability not just to get by – but to excel – in an extremely rigorous academic environment.
Over the last four years, you’ve come to exemplify the credo that’s emblazoned, in Latin, on your school shield – honor, scholarship, and leadership. You’ve had experiences, and made friends, that will always be with you. Thanks to National Prep’s innovative approach – and your outstanding faculty – you’ve developed a love of learning, and an insatiable drive to succeed, that will undoubtedly serve you well for the rest of your lives. From history and literature, to math, science, and the arts – you’ve discovered new passions, acquired new aptitudes, and learned a great deal about yourselves. You’ve come together as a community – learning to support one another in, and far beyond, the classroom. You’ve set an outstanding example for generations of National Prep students who will follow in your footsteps. And you’ve earned the incredible distinction of becoming the first students to graduate from the first – and only – school east of the river to offer an International Baccalaureate curriculum.
Now, this – by itself – is a remarkable accomplishment. But it’s far from the only first that’s associated with the Class of 2013. Last year, you became the first class to travel abroad – during a service trip to Panama – where you volunteered your time and talents to help those in need. Earlier this year, you cheered your Panthers basketball team on to their first – of what I’m sure will be a great many – championships. Together, you’ve secured a combined total of roughly a million dollars in college scholarships. Every single one of you – 100% of the class before me – has been accepted into a college or university. And, when you walked across this stage just a few moments ago, the overwhelming majority of you, like I was, became the first in your families to head off to an institution of higher learning.
I want you to know that your teachers, your families, and your communities couldn’t be prouder of you. I couldn’t be prouder of you. I know I speak for everyone here when I say that we’re eager to see what you’ll do, and learn, and achieve as you embark on an exciting new chapter in your lives. Even more importantly, we’re all counting on you to use the skills you learned at National Prep, and those you’ll foster and refine in the years ahead, to better your nation; to strengthen your communities; and to improve and enrich the lives of those around you.
If this sounds like a tall order – or a tough assignment – that’s because it is. But the truth is that, throughout history, this country has always relied on the energy, the optimism, and the fresh ideas of our youngest citizens to drive positive change – and ensure our continued progress. Based on everything you’ve already achieved, I’m confident that you’re up to the challenge.
So this afternoon, as we pause to consider how far you’ve come since you joined this community of learning four distant years ago – as eager but uncertain freshmen – I hope you’ll each take a moment to look back with pride on the record of accomplishment that you and your classmates have built. There’s no question that the Class of 2013 has blazed a trail that is distinctly your own, shared memories that will always bind you together, and established a tradition of excellence that will guide your actions – and inspire your successors – for years to come.
As you move into the future, these experiences and lessons – and many of the friends you’ve made – will stay with you. But today’s commencement ceremony marks much more than the end of your illustrious tenure at National Prep. It’s also an opportunity to look beyond this institution. It’s a time to plan, and to prepare yourselves, for the challenges that undoubtedly lie ahead. And it’s an important chance to start thinking about some critical questions:
What will you do to make a living – and to make your mark – that will leave this world a better place for those who follow? What will your generation imagine that others could not? And what kind of future will you envision, and help to realize, that your parents and predecessors could only dream about?
Unlike some of the questions you’ve heard from your teachers over the past four years, these are not rhetorical. And their answers are anything but obvious.
In a few short years, you’ll be members of the workforce, holding positions of responsibility in your communities and in every field of endeavor – from business and politics, to medicine, journalism, science, the arts, and the law. No matter what path you choose – or how hard you work – from time to time, you will experience setbacks and false starts. You will distinguish yourselves – and discover your true character – as you respond to adversity and learn to emerge from moments of difficulty and disappointment both stronger and smarter.
Armed with the education you received here at National Prep, and empowered by the college training you’re about to begin – you’ll also rise to great heights. You’ll achieve extraordinary things and meet with tremendous success. And, like so many who have gone before you – you’ll have the opportunity to do nothing less than change the country, and the world, in which we live.
Before you know it, you and your peers will take the reins of government and the private sector. You will pass to your children, and your children’s children, a world that is different from the one you’re about to inherit. That much is inevitable. But what’s not inevitable is exactly what this change will look like; whether your generation will remain true to our most treasured values; and whether you’ll continue reaching for – and working toward – the more perfect Union that has been our common pursuit for more than two centuries.
Thanks to the committed efforts of countless engaged citizens throughout our history, we live in an America today that our forebears could only dream about. But we must always remember that continued progress is far from assured. And positive outcomes are anything but preordained.
After all, there was a time – not so long ago – when racial discrimination was institutionalized in this country, and segregation was the law of the land. When voting rights did not extend to all citizens. When electing an African American President – or appointing a black Attorney General – would have been inconceivable. And when bright young men and women like you were routinely turned away from the educational and job opportunities they deserved – solely because of the color of their skin.
Fortunately, over the years, countless extraordinary - ordinary Americans – from all races, creeds, backgrounds, and walks of life – have refused to settle for such an unjust status quo. Over the last century, untold millions have organized, raised their voices, spoken out, stood up – and sat in – to secure the rights and freedoms we enjoy today. And 50 years ago this week, thanks to two of these brave citizens – who happened to be students, not much older than many of you – our nation took a significant step toward equality and justice – when they braved bigotry, hatred, and threats of violence to integrate the University of Alabama.
These courageous individuals – a young man named James Hood, and a wonderful young woman named Vivian Malone, who would much later become my sister-in-law – had been denied admission to their state’s flagship university just because they were black. But they refused to take “no” for an answer. They declined to sit back and wait – for the rights which were theirs as American citizens or for the Civil Rights Movement to run its course. And exactly half a century ago tomorrow – June 11, 1963 – with the help of my predecessor, Attorney General Robert Kennedy; with Justice Department officials and members of the National Guard at their sides; and with the eyes of a nation upon them – they made history by stepping past Governor George Wallace to register as the first black students at the University of Alabama.
Later that same day, President John F. Kennedy addressed the American people from the Oval Office – expressing his support for James and Vivian, and describing the struggle for civil rights as a “moral issue” that is “as old as the scriptures and . . . as clear as the Constitution.” In the boldest terms yet used by any president, he called on Congress to pass sweeping civil rights legislation. And he admonished his fellow citizens that “[t]hose who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence . . .” while “[t]hose who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality.”
As I look around this crowd today, I see that I’m one of the only people here who’s old enough to remember 1963. Those who were alive at that time will never forget that infamous “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door,” or the inspiring words of President Kennedy’s speech – which I can still remember watching with my parents on a small, black-and-white TV in the basement of my childhood home.
In many ways, these groundbreaking civil rights victories served as my very first lessons in the incredible difference that even a single person can make – and the power that our youngest citizens can wield – in the struggle to make our nation more just, more fair, and more humane. Although it would take years for me to understand the full impact of these events, I’d like to think that I realized – even then – that they represented a major step forward: an inflection point in American history that was brought about by a couple of college students; that revealed our nation’s true character; and that helped to set this country on course for a brighter, and more inclusive, future.
Unfortunately, despite the promise that these victories held – and the tantalizing progress they foretold – by themselves, these events did little to transform our society overnight. They did not immediately alter the reality, or eliminate the grave dangers, that so many civil rights advocates and organizers continued to face. And just hours after President Kennedy’s historic speech – even before the sun came up the next day – our nation was reminded of these dangers in the most tragic and shocking of ways, when a great champion for equality, opportunity, and justice, Medgar Evers, was shot to death in his own driveway in Mississippi – at the age of just 37.
This senseless murder captured headlines – and it shook the Civil Rights Movement from coast to coast. It reminded the world of the terrible price that patriots and pioneers have had to pay, throughout history, to bring our nation closer to our founding ideals. And, along with the successes of the previous day, its lessons still speak to us – across the ages – as we come together this afternoon: calling a new generation of idealistic young leaders to cherish the opportunities, and continue the progress, that so many have fought and died to secure.
Today, the preservation of this progress constitutes a sacred charge that’s been entrusted to every American – and a promise that all of you must strive to fulfill. Although the Class of 2013 will soon step into an uncertain future – and take charge of a world that’s too often divided – you must never forget the sacrifices that your predecessors, and mine, have made in order that we might achieve our dreams and fulfill our true potential.
After all, if the world as it existed 50 years ago sounds like ancient history to you, that’s only because two courageous young students set out to make it ancient history. Starting today – by virtue of the education you’ve been given – the graduates in this crowd have a responsibility to follow in their footsteps. And you’ve been afforded the breathtaking opportunity not just to conceive of a better world – but to help build it.
As you accept and seize this opportunity – fanning out to colleges across the country, and beginning to explore the limitless possibilities that await you – you’ll soon find that the question is no longer how much you’ve learned, or even what you know, but what this knowledge can empower you to achieve. This is why – no matter how you decide to put your skills and training to use – you must never doubt your abilities. You must never let go of your idealism. And you must never stop challenging our nation to aim higher and become better.
In the days ahead, all of you must – and will – find your own way to help lead; to stand up against the forces of cynicism and doubt; and to boldly act – as President Kennedy once said – in recognition of both “right and reality.” You will come to understand – as heroes like Vivian Malone, James Hood, and Medgar Evers once did – that the positive change you seek can, and indeed must, begin within you.
So as you move forward in your lives and careers, I urge every member of the Class of 2013 to continue the traditions of leadership, and public service, that you established here at National Prep. I ask you to remember the sacrifices of those who came before you, and honor their contributions by matching them with your own. And I implore you, above all else, to act with optimism – and without delay – as you work to build the brighter future that your generation deserves – and strive, no matter the odds, to make that which had always seemed impossible a reality.
Congratulations, Class of 2013 – and good luck.