Good afternoon, graduates. Good afternoon, family members. Good afternoon, everyone who is here to celebrate these remarkable women.
Thank you so much, President [Mary Schmidt] Campbell, for that warm introduction, but also for your tremendous leadership not just of Spelman College, but of the entire Spelman sisterhood – a family that spans generations, stretches across borders and goes around this globe, all blossoming from a tree planted 135 years ago. Let me also acknowledge Chairwoman [Rosalind] Brewer and the Spelman Board of Trustees for their stewardship of this great institution. And let me also salute a few of your members I've had the privilege of meeting earlier today – your class president, Neah Evering, and my future colleague in the law; your Student Government president, Zarinah Mustafa, and all the work that she has done over this year; and my fellow orator on this stage, your valedictorian, Faith Kirkland. Let me also salute the other award recipients today, Sister Precious Mohammed who has lived a life of faith and service to others that is an inspiration to us all, and my fellow honorary degree recipient, Stevie Wonder. I had written some kind words to say but I was simply quote the discussion that Stevie had with my father earlier before we came down to this beautiful event, when my father in saying hello said, "There are some who preach the gospel through words and there are some who preach the gospel through music, but it's the same gospel." Stevie, thank you for your message of love and faith in humanity and love and faith in our possibilities. Now you've received many awards – deservedly so – but I suspect that one of your most meaningful achievements is about to walk across this stage with her class in a few moments and join you in attaining a Spelman degree.
I am so grateful to be here with all of you this afternoon. It is an enormous privilege to receive an honorary degree from Spelman College. But it is an even greater gift to be a part of this happy occasion – to stand alongside the professors, administrators and family members who have given so much to help you reach this day, and to join them in congratulating you on this job. And even though I have not been with them every step of the way for you as they have, looking out at all of you, I join them in saying how incredibly proud I am of all of you. 2016, congratulations.
Let me extend a very special welcome and acknowledgement to our most special guests – the families and friends of our graduates. You are all here to celebrate – mothers and fathers, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends – you are all here because that is what families do. We come together to commemorate the most special times in your lives. When you graduate, we graduate. I also suspect that we have been on you lately, it maybe even a little bit more than usual. That’s because all of this is finally real to us. We are finally seeing as the women that you were born to be. So even though we know that you are ready to fly, indeed to soar, we hold on just a little while longer. And we pull and prod and ask questions. “You want to live where? But that’s so far away! Are you going to church? What's happening with that young man? Why won’t you accept my Facebook friend request?” On that last one, if I leave you with any advice today, don’t accept it. Just don't. Just let it sit there. It often does seem as if we’re holding on to you so tightly now, just when you are headed off into the world. But it is because even as we see you today, in all your graduation glory, we also see you on your first day of school, when you still held our hand to cross the street. And know this: as you listen and as you sigh as only a daughter can do, all of our prodding and questioning and hovering come from a love and a pride that is so deep and so boundless that when we look at you, it literally takes our breath away. So please forgive us if we want to hold on just a little bit longer. Because we do know that when you hit the world, you will shine.
Now it is also possible that, when you take a look at the world you are about to inherit, you may find yourself wanting to hold on a little longer as well. It is certainly true that we are in challenging times. We just are. We have ethnic strife across the globe. We have the largest wave of refugees into Europe since World War II, with an attendant rise in xenophobia and ethnic hatred that pulls at our darkest memories. Our oceans are rising, the seas are warming. In this country as well, right here at home, we face threats to our national security and our cyber security as well as threats to our most vulnerable populations. We have the challenges of building and strengthening the bonds of trust between law enforcement and the community. That is not a small task. We have the challenge of protecting the sacred right to vote. That is not a job we will ever drop. And we still have too many instances in this beautiful country of ours where our friends, our family, suffer discrimination and harm because of where they are from, because of what they look like, because of where they worship, because of whom they love – or because of something as profoundly simple and private as where they use a restroom.
We see all of these challenges facing you, facing all of us, and they are indeed daunting. But let me tell you what else I see. I see a global recognition that we cannot allow the despots of the world to rest their feet on the necks of their people. I see scientific advances that will change the way we live and heal ourselves. And as painful as the incidents are that have spurred our outrage, I see a conversation on civil rights in this country the likes of which we have not had since the days of the Civil Rights Movement itself. My faith in our ability to not just withstand but conquer these challenges is bolstered by what else I see today. I see over 480 strong and motivated young women who have already decided to use their choices to change the world. I see the agents of change who are already committed to making a difference in their communities. I see brilliant and driven leaders – yes, all of you – with the potential to leave a lasting mark on the world. I see Spelman graduates. You exude the poise, elegance and confidence that this institution strives to confer – the qualities that will mark you as a Spelman woman for the rest of your life. Most importantly, I see a sisterhood – one that will stand together every step of the way, no matter how difficult the circumstances or how daunting the task.
And I know, that especially from where you sit today, the tasks ahead to seem daunting. But know this: we have been here before. We have faced fundamental challenges to our good will, to our very humanity, and we have prevailed. Our strength as a people, our strength as a country, has always been to turn great challenges into great opportunities. Many of our greatest advances in equal rights, in human rights, have come after searing pain and heartbreaking loss. This has never been easy, but we have always pushed ever on and with every challenge we face, with every milestone we overcome, we come just a bit closer to that essential dream of this country. We have held the equality of all men to be “self-evident.” We have fought to maintain a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” And we have followed “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” These are our values. These are our beliefs. And when we hold on to them, we do great things.
What we have learned from all our challenges is not that our values are not true, not that our values are not good, but that every generation must commit to them and work to make them real for the challenges of their time. And we've also learned that the catalysts for change have always been young people just like you – young people who reject stereotypes and turn away from old ways of thinking; who insist that we can and will do better.
Now, I cannot tell you that your choice to change the world, the way you live in service and honor and obligation to others, I can't tell you this will always be comfortable. I can't predict the exact results of your actions. But I can assure you, I can tell you today, that by working to improve the circumstances of your own particular time and place, you will create ripples of change that will flow far into the future, expanding as they go in ways that none of us can imagine. If you need proof of this, look no further than the history of our country. Now, we know that the lawyers and merchants who gathered in the Pennsylvania State House to declare their independence from Britain did not have you and me in mind when they asserted that “all men are created equal.” They weren't thinking about us – they had pushed us off the page. But their words have inspired movements for equality ever since. Because one does not claim liberty and equality by virtue of one’s gender or race, but by virtue of being a child of God. The organizers of the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 who were trying to get women the vote did not expect to awaken a national campaign. But their example has galvanized and empowered women to this day. Because when the full force of womanhood is awakened, nations change and dreams come true. The students – you age – who sat at that lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, who sat in the basement of my father's church and planned their next move, weren’t looking to change federal law. But their actions ignited a wave of protests throughout the South that fueled the Civil Rights Movement everywhere and helped bring about a greater society. Because when freedom is awakened in the hearts of the people, it will never sleep again. And the 11 women, some of them former slaves, who sought an education in the dim basement of an Atlanta church 135 years ago did so not knowing if their dreams of an education for themselves and their daughters – all of us – would come true. But you are here – we are here – because of them. Because of the power of black women – to lean on faith, to make a way out of no way – can move mountains.
Graduates, class of 2016, you are the heirs to the vision of those founders; to the courage of those suffragists; to the persistence of those students; and to the determination of those women. Each of them sought to improve their own circumstances, but they also expanded the sphere of opportunity not just for themselves, but for generations to come.
But know this also, as you think about their example, as you think about the legacy they leave and sometimes the burden that can place on you: they all at one time sat where you sit today – on the brink of moving into a world they were still learning to navigate, that they were not sure would open its arms to them and their talents. And all of them wondered, as do you, how will I find that way? What will be my path? They moved into the world not knowing what impact they would have and in many instances not living to see the fruition of their efforts. They sought not a title, but a task. They stepped out on faith, and wanted to be known for their works.
As you prepare to leave here today, I urge you to draw strength from that inheritance, to lean on that example. Never doubt that the smallest step can create the most sweeping change. Go forth into the world that is waiting for you. Explore the sciences that will expand our world, the economies that keep it running and the laws that set us free. But I urge you to never lose sight of our comrades in humanity on whose behalf we are called to work with a faith that will sustain us through it all. This is my call to you: to find your change and live it.
And my graduates, my sisters, don't ever forget to lean on the bonds of sisterhood. That will sustain you through your questions. It will support you through your work. It will give you the strength to carry on, no matter how challenging the task. It will be there for you no matter how long you need it – all the days of your life, for a year, or just a 166 days.
And so today we let go of your hand, knowing that you will soar, you will fly, not just across the street but across the world. Knowing also that as much as we want to hold you close, the world needs you more.
I want to congratulate you, the class of 2016. Thank you for letting me spend a few minutes in your brilliance today. I cannot wait to see what you all achieve because I already am so much in awe of what you have brought. Congratulations graduates, your families and all of us who've come here to celebrate these wonderful, wonderful women. Thank you.
Neither the Catt Center nor Iowa State University is affiliated with any individual in the Archives or any political party. Inclusion in the Archives is not an endorsement by the center or the university.