Thank you, President [David] Wilson, for those kind words – and thank you all for such a warm welcome. It’s a pleasure to join you on this beautiful campus. And it’s a privilege to stand with so many distinguished faculty, staff, and administrators; members of the Board of Regents; and proud parents, family members, friends, and alumni – in congratulating the Morgan State University Class of 2014.
I’d like to thank Calvin Butler for his thoughtful remarks. And I want to thank Chairman – and former Congressman and NAACP President – Kweisi Mfume for his inspiring words and his service to our nation over the course of his exemplary career. I’d also like to recognize every member of Morgan State’s renowned choir and band for sharing their talents with us. Thank you for making today’s ceremony so special. And thank you, most of all, to the Class of 2014 for inviting me to share in this moment – as we mark the end of one chapter of your lives and celebrate the beginning of the next.
I know each of you walked a difficult path to be here today – a path beset by challenges; some prescribed by your professors to test your knowledge and skills, others by outside circumstances – and some by societal factors beyond your control. Every obstacle – every paper and project; every midterm and final exam – had to be confronted and overcome before you could take your seat among this crowd. And while we applaud your individual achievements today, celebrate your collective victories, and commemorate what is truly a significant milestone – the fact is that, for all the work, the studying, and the sleepless nights – none of you made this journey alone.
In so many ways, the path that led you to this moment was forged by men and women who came before you – many seemingly ordinary, but all extraordinary – from those who pioneered the establishment of this great school more than 140 years ago, to those who first opened its doors to women and, later, to students of all races and backgrounds. Each of their journeys was less certain. They had no set courses to guide them. And they must have found, at times, that there was no obvious way forward – and nothing but darkness and difficulty stretching out ahead – their path lit only by the flame of America’s founding promise.
They were courageous individuals – from Reverend Joseph Albert DeLaine, to Sarah Bolling, to Oliver Brown – who stood up and spoke out, often at great personal cost, for what they knew to be right. They were civil rights advocates and attorneys – like Robert Carter, Jack Greenberg, and Baltimore’s own Thurgood Marshall – who translated a growing, restless movement into a focused fight for legal change. And they were eminent jurists like Chief Justice Earl Warren and his eight colleagues on the United States Supreme Court – who, exactly sixty years ago today, unanimously declared, in Brown v. Board of Education, that separate was inherently unequal – and that racial segregation ran contrary to the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under law.
At the time of this revolutionary ruling, I was just three years old and still a few years away from starting school. My generation was the first to come of age in a post-Brown America. And although the vestiges of state-sanctioned discrimination affected many aspects of our lives – and continue to reverberate across the country even today – thanks to Brown and those who made it possible, your generation will never know a world in which “separate but equal” was the law of the land.
Of course, if that era seems like ancient history to you, that’s only because your forebears – including members of the Class of 1964 who are with us today – came together to make it ancient history. In the wake of Brown v. Board, people of all ages – and from every corner of our nation – were inspired and emboldened by the courage, the conviction, and the persistence of those who risked so much in the fight for freedom and justice. Today, as you walk across this stage, each of you will take your rightful place as heirs of these pioneers – from the Freedom Riders who defied prejudice to travel through the segregated South, to the marchers in Selma and Birmingham who risked their lives for a dream they knew they might not live to see; from the hundreds of students right here at Morgan who helped initiate the national sit-in movement, to a young man named Robert Bell, who would go on to graduate from Morgan State, and who – in 1960, at just 16 years old – was arrested for participating in a sit-in at a Baltimore restaurant that served only white customers.
Following his arrest, Robert Bell became the lead appellant in a landmark civil rights case known as Bell v. Maryland, which ultimately pushed this state – and the entire country – closer to desegregation. He and his fellow students were represented by legendary lawyers like Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley. And after that victory – and his graduation from “Fair Morgan” – Robert went on to attend Harvard Law School. And he eventually became the first African-American Chief Judge to serve on the highest court in Maryland, retiring just last year.
Chief Judge Bell’s journey started right here in Baltimore, when he was not much younger than many of you. Despite their age, he and his classmates rose to the greatest moral challenge of their time. They devoted themselves to the cause of justice in the face of adversity that – to us – would be unthinkable. And in so doing, they not only overcame obstacles – they transcended history. They helped to pull this nation closer to its founding ideals. And many of them once sat where you do today.
To the Class of 2014, Chief Judge Bell’s achievements – and his extraordinary life story – should be more than just an inspiration. They stand as a challenge to every young woman and young man who walks in his footsteps. They should drive you to question that which is accepted truth. Dare to reach beyond yourselves. Aim, as he did, not merely to witness history, but to make it. And strive to live up to the singular legacy that belongs to each Morgan graduate by virtue of the history you now inherit, the milestone anniversary we observe today, and the profound sacrifices endured by the trailblazers on whose shoulders you now stand.
When I think of these sacrifices, I think of – and thank – both of my parents, whom I love, admire – and who I miss each and every day. I think in particular of my father – who immigrated to this country as a young boy many years ago from Barbados; who enlisted in the military during World War Two when he was close to 40 years old; and who proudly wore the uniform of the United States Army during his service in that war. When I reflect on the power of individual determination, I think of the same great man – who was denied service at a lunch counter and told to leave a whites-only train car even though he was wearing the uniform of his country – a uniform of which he was proud, and which he treasured, throughout his life. And when I think of the duties, the rights, and the weighty responsibilities of American citizenship – responsibilities that are now entrusted to each of you – I think of that man, my father – for whom I am named, who never lost faith in the greatness of his country even when it did not reciprocate his devotion. A man who never stopped believing in the promise of this nation, even when that promise was obscured by injustice. And a man whose dedication to preserving the American Dream ran so deep that he put his life on the line to defend that dream the moment it was threatened; who worked hard, along with my mother, to give my brother and me every opportunity to succeed; and who taught us, by word and by deed, that this country’s true greatness lives in its highest aspirations – and in the power of every citizen to chart our nation’s course, and build a brighter future, together.
Today, as we celebrate an inflection point in American history and mark the commencement of over 850 new leaders – each of you blessed by a sense of opportunity and possibility that would have been unimaginable just a few short generations ago – I urge you to be mindful of this history we share. I implore you to remember – as you work to “grow the future and lead the world” – that you are part of something, and heirs to a legacy, much larger than yourselves. You owe a tremendous debt to all who came before – your grandparents, your parents and mine – to those who built this nation while it held them in chains; to those who served their country even when its businesses and schools refused to serve them; to those who marched for the ideals we’ve always held sacred; to those who carried this fight from our city streets all the way to the highest court in the land.
As you move forward from this moment, you must resolve to be both serious about your life choices and respectful of your proud, singular past. Wherever you go and whatever you do, you must find your own unique ways to contribute; to blaze a path for the next generation of Morgan graduates; and to keep challenging this nation to become even greater, even fairer, and even more committed to its founding ideals.
After all, there can be no question – as I look over this crowd – that our country has come a long way on the road to equality and opportunity. But there’s also no denying that this struggle is far from over. Critical work remains unfinished. And the expansion of this progress constitutes a sacred charge that tomorrow’s leaders must strive to fulfill. That you must fulfill.
Over the last few weeks and months, we’ve seen occasional, jarring reminders of the discrimination – and the isolated, repugnant, racist views – that in some places have yet to be overcome. These incidents have received substantial media coverage. And they have rightly been condemned by leaders, commentators, and citizens from all backgrounds and walks of life.
But we ought not find contentment in the fact that these high-profile expressions of outright bigotry seem atypical and were met with such swift condemnation. Because if we focus solely on these incidents – on outlandish statements that capture national attention and spark outrage on Facebook and Twitter – we are likely to miss the more hidden, and more troubling, reality behind the headlines.
These outbursts of bigotry, while deplorable, are not the true markers of the struggle that still must be waged, or the work that still needs to be done – because the greatest threats do not announce themselves in screaming headlines. They are more subtle. They cut deeper. And their terrible impact endures long after the headlines have faded and obvious, ignorant expressions of hatred have been marginalized.
Nor does the greatest threat to equal opportunity any longer reside in overtly discriminatory statutes like the “separate but equal” laws of 60 years ago. Since the era of Brown, laws making classifications based on race have been subjected to a legal standard known as “strict scrutiny.” Almost invariably, these statutes, when tested, fail to pass constitutional muster. But there are other policies that too easily escape such scrutiny because they have the appearance of being race-neutral. Their impacts, however, are anything but. This is the concern we must contend with today: policies that impede equal opportunity in fact, if not in form.
Codified segregation of public schools has been barred since Brown. But in too many of our school districts, significant divisions persist and segregation has reoccurred – including zero-tolerance school discipline practices that, while well-intentioned and aimed at promoting school safety, affect black males at a rate three times higher than their white peers.
There are other examples.
For instance, in our criminal justice system, systemic and unwarranted racial disparities remain disturbingly common. One study released last year by the U.S. Sentencing Commission indicated that – in recent years – African-American men have received sentences that are nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. Another report showed that American Indians are often sentenced even more harshly. The Justice Department is examining these and other disparities as we speak – and taking a variety of steps to ensure fair sentences that match the conduct at issue in individual cases. Like a growing chorus of lawmakers across the political spectrum, we recognize that disparate outcomes are not only shameful and unacceptable – they impede our ability to see that justice is done. And they perpetuate cycles of poverty, crime, and incarceration that trap individuals, destroy communities, and decimate minority neighborhoods.
And until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, African Americans’ right to the franchise was aggressively restricted based solely on race. Today, such overt measures cannot survive. Yet in too many jurisdictions, new types of restrictions are justified as attempts to curb an epidemic of voter fraud that – in reality – has never been shown to exist. Rather than addressing a supposedly widespread problem, these policies disproportionately disenfranchise African Americans, Hispanics, other communities of color, and vulnerable populations such as the elderly. But interfering with or depriving a person of the right to vote should never be a political aim. It is a moral failing. In recent years, thousands of Americans, the pride of our nation, have given their lives – and deal even today with the scars of war – so that hopeful, striving people who live continents away could proudly hold up their purple fingers after voting in a truly democratic process. America is now 50 years from Freedom Summer. And we must not countenance, within our own borders, practices that would make it difficult or impossible to exercise the right for which so many have given so much.
Our country is stronger when all Americans are treated equally. Yet we know that boys and young men of color have historically and consistently faced some of the most severe challenges to success. Through the President’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, agencies across the federal government are identifying ways to help. This initiative is a call to action that includes foundations, corporations, community leaders, and you – because we must all work together to broaden horizons for younger generations, just as our predecessors did.
This is the work that truly matters – because policies that disenfranchise specific groups are more pernicious than hateful rants. Proposals that feed uncertainty, question the desire of a people to work, and relegate particular Americans to economic despair are more malignant than intolerant public statements, no matter how many eyebrows the outbursts might raise. And a criminal justice system that treats groups of people differently – and punishes them unequally – has a much more negative impact than misguided words that we can reject out of hand.
Chief Justice John Roberts has argued that the path to ending racial discrimination is to give less consideration to the issue of race altogether. This presupposes that racial discrimination is at a sufficiently low ebb that it doesn’t need to be actively confronted. In its most obvious forms, it might be. But discrimination does not always come in the form of a hateful epithet or a Jim Crow-like statute. And so we must continue to take account of racial inequality, especially in its less obvious forms, and actively discuss ways to combat it. As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote recently in an insightful dissent in the Michigan college admissions case – we must not “wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. …The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race.”
Of course, talking forthrightly about these difficult issues – and building a constructive and inclusive national dialogue – will not by itself be sufficient to address them. But it’s a necessary first step that must lead to action. Our most serious and systemic challenges are too often dismissed, or oversimplified, or blamed on politics. But we do ourselves and our great nation a grave disservice whenever we reach for easy answers or revert to stale talking points; whenever we fall victim to old paradigms and traditional habits of thought; and whenever we trade the noisy discord of honest, tough, and vigorous debate for the quiet prejudice of inaction – and the cold silence of consent.
Indeed – if our history is any guide – fostering a positive national dialogue is the best possible way to keep building on the achievements of our past as we look to the future. From Brown to the Civil Rights Act of 1964; from the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to sweeping reforms like Head Start, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act – which is already helping millions of young people like you get quality, affordable health insurance – the last half-century has witnessed extraordinary steps forward. And each of these achievements was made possible by driven, determined individuals, many of whom were no more and no less qualified than each of you.
Progress can be achingly slow – but in this country, as a courtroom full of men and women was reminded six decades ago, our destiny is of our own design. Your futures, and your children’s futures, will be shaped by what you do today, tomorrow, and every day after that. And history will be written by the graduates before me – by the stands you take and the challenges you accept.
After all, 60 years and one day ago, schools and other public accommodations could legally refuse entry to men like my father. Today, that devoted soldier’s son stands before you as the 82nd Attorney General of the United States of America – proudly serving in the Administration of the first African-American president to lead this nation. That’s a powerful illustration of the greatness and possibility that is America – and the debt we owe to all who have dedicated their lives to building the more just and more perfect Union that remains our common pursuit.
As graduates of Morgan State University, you’ve been given a rare chance to follow in the footsteps of giants – no matter what degree you’ve attained, or what direction your life and career will take when you leave this campus. So as you fan out across Maryland and all around the country, I urge you to find ways to serve your communities and give back to our nation. Never hesitate to ask difficult questions and call attention to uncomfortable truths. And work, above all, to promote understanding, to foster inclusion, and to push our nation forward.
Class of 2014: I look forward to all that you will do, and achieve, from this moment on. Know that your opportunities are constrained only by the power of your imaginations and the strength of your collective will. And always remember that – so long as you stay true to the principles that define us and the history that’s now yours to shape – your potential is truly without limit. Our proud past stretches behind you. And a boundless future awaits – a future we can and must build together.
Congratulations, once again, on this considerable achievement – and good luck to you all.