Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you very much. Thank you. Well, thank you so much for this wonderful honor. It’s terrific to be here in Nashville.
The academic in me is pleased to be at a university like Vanderbilt, respected around the world.
The sports fan in me is thrilled to be at the home of the Commodores, the 2004 SEC champions in women’s basketball and golf, home of two basketball teams that made it to this year’s Sweet 16, and a university whose football team is going to improve. I guarantee it.
The Southerner in me is happy to be here, a little closer to my roots in this region that has changed so much so quickly.
To Gordon Gee, the Chancellor of the University, thank you very much for having me here. Martha Ingram, the chairman of the Board of Trustees, the faculty and staff, distinguished alumni and guests, family and friends and especially the graduates of 2004.
It’s been many years since my undergraduate commencement at the University of Denver. I remember almost everything about it’the pride of my family, the closeness I felt to my classmates and friends, the thrill that comes with reaching an important goal.
I do not, however, remember a single word that the commencement speaker said and you won’t either, and I promise not to take it personally. On this day, you can be forgiven for feeling a little restless and a little proud. For many of you, earning a great degree from this great university represents a mark of the most substantial accomplishment of your lives thus far. And being Commodores, I’m sure it’s not going to be the last.
You are here because you worked hard. You are here because you value education. You are here because this university saw in you the raw potential that is now being realized.
But let’s be very clear. Merit alone did not see you to this day. There are many people in this country, many from your hometown, some even from your own high school, who are just as intelligent, just as hard-working, and just as deserving, but for whatever reason, they didn’t have that one teacher that inspired them, or parents who made it possible, and they didn’t enjoy the opportunities that came your way.
Don’t ever forget that when you leave here. Don’t ever forget that just because you deserve something it doesn’t mean that you’ll necessarily get it. And don’t ever assume that just because you got something, it meant that you deserved it.
Commencement is an opportunity to graduate to humility. Also never forget the struggles and the sacrifices of the generations of people who came before you — people who built this university, who strengthened this nation and made possible the limitless opportunities that you now enjoy.
If you look closely around you at the crowd of faces, it’s a very different crowd than you would have seen even 50 years ago. Represented among us today are students and faculty of both genders, all races, numerous ethnicities, every major religion and many different nationalities. This diversity is a credit to this school, a great advantage to each and every one of you, and an important affirmation throughout the world that multi-ethnic democracy can work.
It is often said that diversity is one of our nation’s greatest strengths, but too rarely do we take the time to think what that means. I believe the answer is very simple. America and Americans are willing to embrace all that is good in the world, in art and science and culture, while maintaining the basic principles of American liberty, as enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights.
In this way, our system of government and our society are constantly renewing and improving themselves. All Americans who embrace the principles of those documents find in them a common refuge and are bound together in a common devotion.
A first generation American has as much claim to the legacy of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln as those who can trace their roots to the Mayflower.
But we know that it was not always that way and we know that we have still further to go. We know how difficult our nation’s journey has been, how much sacrifice it has entailed, and I want to tell you from firsthand experience, it hasn’t been easy.
I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, before the Civil Rights movement — a place that was once described, with no exaggeration, as the most thoroughly segregated city in the country. I know what it means to hold dreams and aspirations when half your neighbors think you are incapable of, or uninterested in, anything better.
I know what it’s like to live with segregation in an atmosphere of hostility, and contempt, and cold stares, and the ever-present threat of violence, a threat that sometimes erupted into the real thing.
I remembered the bombing of that Sunday school at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. I did not see it happen, but I heard it happen and I felt it happen, just a few blocks away at my father’s church. It is a sound that I will never forget, that will forever reverberate in my ears. That bomb took the lives of four young girls, including my friend and playmate Denise McNair. The crime was calculated, not random. It was meant to suck the hope out of young lives, bury their aspirations, and ensure that old fears would be propelled forward into the next generation.
But those fears were not propelled forward. Those terrorists failed. They failed because of the poverty of their vision?a vision of hate, and inequality, and the primacy of difference. And they failed because of the courage and sacrifice of all who suffered and struggled for Civil Rights. Those brave men and women asked America to make a choice, between living up to our founding ideas or perpetuating state sanctioned racism.
Next week marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education. Fifty years ago, before the Brown decision, there was literally no interracial contact in Southern schools. Long after Brown, though, that segregation persisted. You may find this hard to believe, but I started school in 1960. I did not have a single white classmate and I had one white teacher until we moved to Denver, Colorado in 1968.
I remember too, my first trip to Nashville. I was seven or so years old and we traveled here to Fisk University to hear the Fisk Jubilee Singers. There would have been no thought of dinner in a restaurant or lodging in a hotel. No, the American South was still quite separate and quite unequal.
But thanks to the courage of many — some famous, some whom history will never record — America had a second founding, and in that second founding the old South passed away.
You can see it in my old hometown of Birmingham that now confronts squarely its past even as it embraces its future. You can see it here in Nashville, with its nationally influential healthcare and music industries, its economic growth, and its diverse neighborhoods. America is finally becoming whole.
Because America is now closer to its ideals, your birthright, your inheritance is a freer, more just, strong, confident and wealthy nation in which you can make your way according to your talents and your dreams.
That privilege is enhanced immensely by the access to higher education that you have had here. Education is transforming. I first learned of the transformation of higher education by the stories of my paternal grandfather. He died before I was born, but he was a huge figure in our lives.
Granddaddy Rice was a sharecropper’s son in Ewtah, Alabama, and one day he decided he was going to get book learning, so he asked in the parlance of the day how a colored man might get to college. And they told him about 50 miles down the road there was this little Presbyterian college called Stillman College and if he would go there he could get a college education.
So he saved up his cotton and he took off for Tuscaloosa and he finished his first year of college. And they said, “Now how are you going to pay for your second year?” He said, “Well, I’m out of cotton.” They said “You’re out of luck, you’ll have to leave Stillman.” And so he said, “Well, how are those boys going to school?” And they said, “Well, you see they have what’s called a scholarship, and if you wanted to be a Presbyterian minister then you could have a scholarship too.” And my grandfather said, “Well, you know, that’s just what I had in mind.” And my family has been Presbyterian and college-educated ever since.
Now with that privilege of higher education in hand, you also have certain obligations. The first is to be optimistic. The world you live in today, this world in which it is possible for you to attend a great university like Vanderbilt and then go on to whatever you will do?law school or medical school or whatever career you choose’that world was built by optimists not pessimists. And the people who built it for you did not sacrifice and sweat so that you would wallow in cynicism. Your parents and your families and your teachers and your neighbors expect better.
With all that you have leaned and all that you’ve been given, you have no excuse to be pessimists. You should know that progress is not only possible, but an unfolding story in which you have an obligation to play a part.
Second, you have an obligation to work to close the cultural gaps that divide our nation and our world. The intellectual foundation of terrorism, like the intellectual foundation of slavery and segregation, rests on arbitrarily dividing human beings into friends and enemies, even into human and non-human. The perpetrators of September 11th were people who believed that difference was a license to kill. Because the education you have had has privileged you to be with those who are unlike you, you know better than most that difference is not a source of fear but an opportunity to learn.
Your third obligation is to work to further the same democratic progress here and abroad that has made your own opportunities possible. All people are bound together by several common desires. Never make the mistake of assuming that some people do not share your desire to live freely’to think and believe as you would like to see fit, to raise a family and educate children, boys and girls. Never make the mistake of assuming that some people do not desire the freedom to chart their own course in life.
In my professional life, I have listened as some explained why Russians would never embrace freedom, that military dictatorship would always be a way of life in Latin America, that Asian values were incompatible with democracy, and that tyranny, corruption and one-party rule would always dominate Africa.
Today we hear these same doubts about the possibility of freedom in the Middle East. We have to reject those doubts. Knowing what we know about the difficulties of our own history, knowing the history of Alabama and Mississippi and Tennessee, we should be humble in singing freedom’s praise, but our voice should never waiver in speaking out on the side of those who seek freedom. And we should never indulge in the condescending voices that allege that some people are not interested in freedom, or aren’t ready for freedom’s responsibility. That view was wrong in 1963 in Birmingham, and it’s wrong in 2004 in Baghdad.
The need for idealists eager to do the hard, yet necessary, work of furthering peace and justice and democracy has never been greater, but neither has the opportunity to do good and change the world. With all of the images of troops and tanks and military operations, it’s hard to remember that this is primarily a war of ideas, not armies. It will be won by visionaries who can look past the moment to see a world in which freedom is not only the birthright of all but a reality for all and who will work to make that day come true.
I hope that some of you will consider working for this progress in one of the components of our national security, in the foreign service or in the military or in public diplomacy or in the Peace Corps. But whatever you choose to do, you have one other obligation and that is to yourself. Do it with passion.
If you’ve not yet found your passion, keep searching. You never know when it will find you.
The Chancellor was nice enough to say that I once had a chance at a great career in concert music. Well, of a sort. I was pretty good, but I realized I wasn’t great. And I thought, I’m going to end up teaching 13-year-olds to murder Beethoven, or playing piano bars someplace or playing at Nordstrom?I’m not going to play Carnegie Hall. And I did find a passion, and it happened to be Russia.
What was a nice girl from Birmingham doing studying Russia? Well, it has changed my life?my life has never been the same. And when you find your passion, not just what you like to do but that which makes you want to get up every morning, you too will have a life-changing experience.
You now join the thin ranks of those throughout the world privileged to have an education. It is a club that you may never quit, and from which you can never be expelled. And membership confers certain responsibilities.
You must satisfy the obligations of education, and the obligations of having been born into a world of freedom. Liberty is forgiving of many failings, but it forgives neither apathy nor neglect. Its continued health makes demands on us all, and its greatest victories are won over decades.
It took America centuries to get where we are today, a fact that should make us humble as well as hopeful. When the founding fathers said, “We the People,” they didn’t mean me. My ancestors were considered three-fifths of a man. But we’ve made great strides. Our democracy is still a work in progress, not a finished product. The hard work begins anew each day and there is plenty of work to do.
Congratulations. Roll up your sleeves. And let the work begin.