Shirley Chisholm

MIT Commencement Address - June 4, 1984

Shirley Chisholm
June 04, 1984— Cambridge, Massachusetts
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President Gray, distinguished members of academia, citizens of the community, parents, and most important of all, the graduates. Congratulations, graduates. And congratulations also to your three F's. I'm not referring to any failing grades. I am talking about the three F's – your family, your friends, and your faculty here at MIT, all of whom must share much of the credit for this great graduation day.

I am honored to have been chosen to speak here today. I must admit, however, I was a little bit puzzled by the invitation, because the range of my technological expertise extends about as far as turning on the radio, and even that venture into the world of high tech sometimes is an act of bravery on my part. I easily can imagine a sudden eruption of black smoke and flying sparks.

And I doubt also that my expertise in political science has much relevance. Some people go so far as to claim that combining the words "political" and "science" is ridiculous, an impossibility. They think that political science is one of those oxymorons, those combinations of contradictory words such as "cruel kindness" or "military intelligence."

But whether or not political science can be a science is beside the point. I am here, I've got the microphone and I'm going to talk. [applause] And I will try not to worry that you thought you had invited some other Shirley Chisholm who may be a nuclear physicist somewhere.

I would like today to speak about the kinds of things about which I am deeply concerned and hope that you will be concerned also. I talk about those things because I believe that they are important to everyone, and I talk about them because they have been the focus of my life's work. Don't worry – I will also say the usual and expected graduation day words about the importance to each of you on this great day and so on, but first let me speak to you for just a few moments about my beliefs.

Let me say why I have fought so hard for 24 years for equality of opportunity for people of all races and of all backgrounds, for the black women of Brooklyn and of Roxbury, for the white women of San Francisco and Cambridge, as well as for white men and black men and Spanish-speaking men from every corner of this country.

And I want to say, too, why I have fought so hard for effective, generous and compassionate action by government – yes, that emotionally charged word "government" – that has been necessary and continues to be necessary to ensure that equality of opportunity – not rhetorically but in actuality – truly exists in America.

I know that I do not have to give anyone here within range of my voice this morning a history lesson about inequality and discrimination in our nation. Everyone knows that it is not been possible for every American to have equal access to a decent job, a nice place to live, a voice in our political system, or a chance to attend a fine educational institution like this one. There has been inequality, there still is inequality, and we need generous public support for proven programs on affirmative action, housing, education, employment, legal services, and on whatever other problem areas that still continue to raise their ugly heads.

But let's talk about you as people, not even graduates, not people that are going to be acquiring some of the highest degrees that will be offered this year in the United States of America. Let's talk about you as citizens and as spouses and as parents and members of our global community. I am NOT suggesting that you drop everything to join the fight for equality, nor am I asking each of you to come abandon all thoughts of your personal rewards or comforts or achievements in your chosen profession. You do not need to march out barefooted into the snows of winter to combat all of the ills of this world.

I am asking you to recognize and act upon basic humanitarian responsibilities. As a citizen, of course, you must be an active and informed and regular voter. In addition, I hope that you make all of your views known on public issues, not just in the voting booth but more frequently in meetings and in letters and by the telephone. I even dare to hope that some of you will join with me in seeking to restore public leadership, leadership that exemplifies profiles in courage in this great nation which is committed to helping the needy and the disadvantaged here in the United States of America.

I must say to you that fewer events in my life have been more difficult for me to watch than the Reagan's administration's replacement of compassionate egalitarian government, with government pledged to greed and selfishness and the ascendancy of the rich and the advantaged in this nation, and that is all that I had better say on that subject [applause] because once I get started it might be time to order a pizza and settle in for a tirade. I will spare you, however. I am sure that my opposition to the President's policies is no secret to anyone here.

Well, let's get back to you and finish with you. Let me mention just a few of my hopes for each of you as husbands, as wives, as fathers, and as mothers. I have been reading that people today are beginning once again to turn away from the cult of narcissism, to turn away from the Me Too generation, and I'm so glad that it's beginning to happen.

I have been encouraged by reports of spouses who are more committed to enduring relationships. I have been happy to hear about young people caring just a bit more about family and community. It has been good news that many people are accepting more responsibility for others, a kind of responsibility which was needed to accompany the new personal freedoms that we gained during the past 20 years from the easing of rigid conformity and old stereotypes. In our own homes, we are responsible for listening and for sharing and for caring. And if we have children, we have even more crucial responsibilities to give to them the time and attention and affection that they need.

If you, if we together, are truly – and that is the key word, truly – concerned about education and the well-being of the next generation, we are going to have to do better as parents. The fact that schools provide only part of a child's education, the fact that schools alone cannot teach and nurture our youngsters, is really a fact. It is not just any kind of easy excuse from the teacher or the principal or a school superintendent. The well-rounded education of our children is responsibility that we cannot and we must not shirk.

I've talked about responsibility, and I hope that you, the graduates, understand that I'm not speaking about a depressing, heavy burden of unending obligations. I am speaking instead of the joy-producing, world-bettering kind of responsibility that lifts far more burdens than it imposes. I have been trying to talk to you about a vibrant democracy. I've been trying to talk to you about more healthy marriages. I've been trying to talk to you about happy children. And I'm talking about making a kind of world where those children can sit at future graduations – their own and their children's – and look back at times of greater equality, greater prosperity, and unbroken years of world peace.

Finally, you who are graduating here today – you are the foot soldiers of the future. Your education has been a complete failure if it has failed to open your hearts to enlightenment. Some of you even may become leaders in helping to create this better world that we all hope for, thus shining the searchlights of science into the secrets of the universe and at the same time holding high the torch of freedom, equality and peace. Each of you can help to build a paradise on this world.

The time has come, and we who are skilled and have ability can no longer sit and be the complacent, passive recipients of whatever our education and the politics of a nation, a nation as great as the United States of America, make it free for us. But if we have live consciences – and many of you can become profiles in courage – you will stand up and be counted. You will even have the audacity to forget conventionalisms and forget tradition when tradition is no longer an answer to the problems that you're groping with in this world.

What we will do is to do our best deed, think our best thought, looking only to God – whoever your God is – and to your consciences for approval.

Congratulations. May God guide you and protect you, and I'm looking to you to be some of the future dynamic leaders of the greatest country in this world, the United States of America.

I thank you. [applause]