Marian Wright Edelman

Commencement Address at Muhlenberg College - May 18, 2008

Marian Wright Edelman
May 18, 2008— Allentown, Pennsylvania
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I am delighted and honored to share this wonderful day of celebration and achievement with your trustees, with your president, with your faculty and administration, with your families, with these wonderful honorary degree recipients, and most importantly, with what I am sure with what is the best graduating class in the history of Muhlenberg College.

The Great German Protest Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died opposing Hitler's Holocaust, believes that the test of the morality of a society is how it treats its children. America flunks Bonhoeffer's test every hour of every day.

As we let a child drop out of school every 10 seconds of a school day; a child being born in our wealthy nation every 35 seconds; a child is being neglected or abused every 36 seconds. Although we lead the world in health technology, we choose to let a child be born without health insurance every 41 seconds. And every minute a child has a child, and we let a child die from gunfire every three hours….eight every day. We have the chronic, quiet equivalent of Virginia Tech every four days. I don't know what it's going to take to have us all stand up and stop the killing of children by guns in the United States of America.

I believe….I believe that we have lost our sense of what is important as a people. To many young people of all races and classes, who are growing up unable to handle life in hard places, without hope, without steady compasses to navigate a world that is re-inventing itself at an unpredictable pace, both technologically and politically. My generation learned that to accomplish anything, we had to get off the dime. Your generation must learn to get off the paradigm over and over, and to be flexible, quick and smart about it. But, despite all the dazzling change, I believe that there are some enduring values and feel strongly that it is the responsibility of every adult, parent, teacher, preacher and professional to make sure that young people hear what we have learned from the lessons of life that helped us survive and succeed, tell you what we think matters, and to know that you are never alone as you go out to meet the future.

When my sons were graduating from college, my older one, I decided to write a letter, a spiritual diary of life lessons. And I'd like to share a few with you. Like them, you can take it or leave it.

The first lesson is there is no free lunch in life. Don't feel entitled to anything you don't sweat and struggle for. Help our nation that it's not entitled to world leadership based on the past, or on what we say rather than how well we perform and meet changing world needs.

For those who are minority in this college class, I hope you will never take anything for granted in America, even with a Muhlenberg degree. And, we need to all be concerned as racial intolerance resurges across our land. It may be wrapped up in new euphemisms, and in better etiquette, but as Frederick Douglass warned us earlier it's the "same old snake."

And for any graduates who feel entitled to leadership by accidental birth or color of skin, let me remind that you that the world that you already live in is two-thirds non-white and poor. And that our nation is becoming a mosaic of greater diversity that you are going to have to understand and respect and work with.

I hope each of you will struggle to continue to achieve and not think for a moment that you've got it made. I know you won't ever be lazy. Do your homework. Pay attention to detail. Take care and pride in your work and take the initiative in creating your own opportunity. And don't wait around for other people to discover you, or do you a favor. Don't assume a door is closed…and if it is closed today, don't assume it's closed tomorrow. Keep pushing on it. Don't ever stop learning and improving your mind, because if you do you are going to be left behind.

Second lesson is to set thoughtful goals and to work quietly and systematically towards them. Don't feel you have to talk if you don't have something important or something that matters to say. Please resist quick-fix, simplistic answers and easy gains, which often disappear just as quickly as they come.

Lesson three - assign yourself. My daddy used to run us crazy when we were children. He asked us every day when we came home from school whether the teacher had given us any homework. When we said "no," he said "well, assign yourself some." We shouldn't wait around for our boss or our friends or our spouse to do whatever you are able to do or figure out for yourself. Don't do just as little as you can to get by. Don't be a political bystander and grumbler. Please vote, because Democracy is not a spectator sport. Don't wait around when you see a need to ask "why doesn't somebody do something?" Ask "why don't I do something?"

Fourth lesson is please don't work just for money. Money alone will not save your soul or build a decent family or help you sleep at night. We are the richest nation on earth with one of the highest incarceration, drug addiction and child poverty rates in the world. Don't ever confuse wealth or fame with character. And don't condone or tolerate moral corruption, whether it's found in high or low places, whatever it's color or class. It's not okay to push or use drugs even if everybody you know is doing it. It's not okay to lie or cheat. Be honest. And demand that those who represent you are honest. Don't confuse morality with legality. Dr. King once said that everything Hitler did in Nazi Germany was legal, but it was not right.

Lesson five — don't be afraid of taking risks or of being criticized. If you don't want to criticized, don't say anything, don't do anything and don't be anything.

Sixth lesson, take parenting and family life very seriously. I hope your generation will raise your sons to be fair to other people's daughters, and to share, and not just help, with parenting responsibilities. And I hope you will stress family rituals and be moral examples for your children. If you cut corners they will too; if you lie, they will too; if you spend all of your money on yourself and little on your colleges, churches, synagogues and civic causes, they won't either. And if you tell, snicker, at racial and gender and gay and lesbian jokes, another generation will pass on the poison that my generation still has not had the courage to snuff out. Stare them down. Make anything that is an attempt to demean another human being unacceptable in your sight.

Last lesson…last lesson. Listen for the genuine within yourself. Small Einstein said that there's a number of them see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts I hope you will try to be with them, because only those who can find the genuine within themselves, can hear it with others.

And never, as you leave Muhlenberg, think that life is not worth living. Don't you ever give up. Never cease trying to make a difference. I don't care how hard it gets. You are going to fall down a whole lot of times. It doesn't matter. Keep getting up. There is an old proverb that says when you get to your wit's end, that's where God lives. So you hang in with life. Don't think you have to win immediately, or even at all, to make a difference.

So as you go out, I hope you'll remember two things -- my role model Sojourner Truth, who was a fierce feminist or a fierce anti-inequality for women person back in slavery, when it seemed hopeless, and she was also against slavery, when it seemed hopeless, and of my favorites stories came one day, when she was speaking out against slavery and she got heckled by an old white man in the audience who said to her: "Old slave woman I don't care anymore about your anti-slavery talk. It's getting to be like an old flea bite." She replied, "That's alright, the Lord willing, I'm going to keep you scratching." So often we think we have to be a big dog, and we do need big changes. But, you know, enough strategic small fleas can make the biggest dog uncomfortable.

We need to have a new movement that resets the moral compass for America. But, it's going to take a network of strategic, persistent fleas who don't give up. So I hope you will be just a flea for justice for children.

Shel Silverstein gets the last word. He said listen to the message child. Listen to the don'ts, listen to the shouldn'ts, the impossibles and the won'ts, listen to the never haves and then listen close to me. Anything can happen child, anything can be. If you dream it, if you believe in it, if you struggle for it, you can never give up.

So, Godspeed as you leave Muhlenberg to go out and change the world. Thank you.

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