Alma Adams

Commencement Address at Bennett College - May 6, 2017

Alma Adams
December 31, 1969
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To interim President Dawkins, to the illustrious past sister presidents Dr. Gloria Randle Scott, Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, Dr. Esther Terry and Dr. Rosalind Fuse-Hall.

Distinguished guests, faculty and staff, trustees, alum, friends, parents and most especially, most especially to the phenomenally bold, brilliantly awesome graduating class of 2017 – Bennett Belles, good morning!

It is a distinct honor and privilege to join you today as you embark upon new beginnings. Dr. Scott, congratulations to you. Dr. Cole, thank you for the task that you undertaken.

And thank you to the professor. I see that the Board of Trustees had a check for you. When I got the award I had to wait for it, but congratulations to you. [laughter]

After being in the turbulence of Washington, D.C., all week, nothing could be finer than to be back in Greensboro, North Carolina on this historic, premier HBCU campus, Bennett College, where young women are nurtured and shaped into phenomenal Bennett Belles.

I bring you very cordial greetings from the U.S. House of Representatives, Speaker Ryan; Democrat leader Pelosi; assistant Democrat leader Clyburn; from the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Cedric Richmond and 49 members of the CBC – the conscience of the Congress – and 775,000 citizens of North Carolina's 12th Congressional District.

I want to recognize John White, who drove me this morning, who started in my office in Raleigh and he's now doing great things with the governor. Thank you, John.

Dr. Dawkins, thank you for the gracious invitation and for your generous introduction.

It's an extraordinary honor to be back on this campus after 40 years of teaching and learning and raising my children and launching my career in public service. It's been my pleasure to represent Bennett College and Greensboro and Guilford County and the residents of North Carolina for the past 34 years, and then have been sworn in to the 113th Congress in November of 2014 as the 100th woman is an exceptional honor. I'm proud to be your voice in Washington and I've appreciated your support and your prayers.

As a member of the House Education Committee and the Committee on Higher Education and as the founder of the first congressional bipartisan HBCU caucus, I want you to know that I put Bennett College and all HBCUs at the very top of my agenda and that's not fake news, either, and I approve that message. [applause]

Graduates, I congratulate you on reaching this milestone today. To your families and your distinguished faculty and the staff – thank you for the investments you've made in these young women.

This is your day, but it's important for you to remember just how you got here and why you sit where you sit today. Because had did not been for the Lord on your side, had it not been for preparation meeting opportunity, you could have been someplace else.

You know you've come this far by faith because somebody paved the way for you. Somebody sacrificed and went without so you can sit in those classrooms – have a long sit there – so you can live in those dormitories and walk across the stage today and receive your degree. And for all of the individuals who believed in your opportunity, you owe a debt of gratitude.

And I know the journey wasn't easy. There was stumbling blocks in your way. But you used those stumbling blocks as stepping stones to get you where you needed to go.

I know that money was short and sometimes you probably didn't have it. No doubt it was difficult to get up and go to class when you had to work all night or you hung out all night, whatever you did [laughter] but because of preparation meeting opportunity you were able to come this far by faith.

You know, like many of you I was a first-generation college student and I'm a proud graduate of an historically black college today. My mom did domestic work. She cleaned white folks' houses so I wouldn't have to. She didn't have an opportunity to go to an HBCU or any college, but she understood the value of education. She was a praying woman, and and HBCU showed favor on her daughter, and North Carolina A&T took a poor black girl from the ghetto of Newark, New Jersey, and made a committed investment in me like Bennett did for you. They nurtured and molded me and shaped me into what they knew I could become. And then I completed my graduate and my undergraduate work, then I was able to go on and get my Ph.D. from The Ohio State University. Why? Because of the North Carolina A&T, an HBCU. I know the power of our schools.

Founded out of necessity, HBCUs believe in opportunity and the fundamental importance of education that W.E.B. Du Bois spoke about when he said of all of the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for for 500 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental.

You know Bennett Belles, sometimes you just need that opportunity. But I can tell you from going from the ghetto to Congress, the way you start out in life doesn't have to determine where you'll end up or just how far you can go. Only you can determine your destiny and your distance.

And so I'm grateful that an HBCU invested in me so that I could see the opportunity, like the same opportunity that Bennett College has given to each of you. You know, it took you where you were and got you to where you needed to be.

You know, like Fannie Lou Hamer – "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired" – because it's way past time, it's way past time that we move the conversation away from "why do we need HBCUs" to "what would we do without our HBCUs?"

You know, our schools make up 3% of our nation's institutions of higher learning, but we graduate 20% of African Americans earning undergraduate degrees, 50% of African-American professionals and public school teachers. Historically we've always done more than this, contributing to this nation in so many, many major ways, even though underfunded.

And I want to send you to Politico. You need to read that article that just came out yesterday and President Trump has said that there's some problems with the budget, but you know that they're not interpreting it right. Twenty-five years we've received money for the historically black colleges and universities to help on our campuses, and he's saying wait, maybe there's something wrong with the language. Well, he's got to get his history right on HBCUs, too, because that's unacceptable and I want you to know we're on it.

You know we've nurtured at our schools generations of leaders. Young women, you have a lot to be proud of, because you are a product of Bennett College. Graduates, to whom much given, much is required. And so the commitment of the founders of this college, established 144 years ago and the past 90 years as a woman's college, require that each of you sitting here today on the cusp of finding your way into the world remember that as you entered this institution you you did so with the end in mind, you looked way down the road and so like leaders and alum – 7,000 of them who paved the way for this college to survive and to thrive since our founding – throughout history Bennett has been focused and mission-oriented and promoting excellence and intellectual honesty, purposeful public service and responsible civic action.

Throughout history, Bennett Belles have embraced the shared responsibility for learning, not asking from other things but inclusive to the extent that as a student that you understand the importance of connecting your learning to service that you must give once you leave these hallowed halls.

You know Martin Luther King's eloquent words reminded us that at the end of the day in spite of all of the divisiveness and the hatred-filled rhetoric, that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.

Well here's the unarmed truth, Bennett Belles – there's a battle on the horizon and we've got to sound the trumpet. That is required. Because when our trumpet is required, a flute just won't do.

You know, Bennett Belles, it's time to have the final word. As the next generation, you must sound the alarm, listen for the trumpet, and get in the game and stay there. It's your time, graduates, to rise up and to make your voices heard, not with a whisper but with a resounding thunderous roar of the trumpet. Your time, because we're living in a turbulent, crucial moment in history. And Belles, who knoweth like Ester, whether you've been sent to this kingdom for such a time as this.

You know our world and communities, we're facing times that we've never seen before. Intolerance and disrespect for differences and hatred for our fellow man. Times of pain and poverty, inequity and bigotry and shame. Times of turmoil and disease, when health care isn't available for everybody. And since the recent actions we took on the floor last week, it's a time of pain and fear because 24 million Americans face losing their health care.

It's a time of economic crisis, when public education and higher education and HBCUs, too –we're under siege. That's not an alternative fact either.

You know, as young graduates who will leave this college, in addition to your degree you're going to carry a few thousands of dollars in student debt. And knowing that Americans have over 1.2 trillion in student debt that the states have stopped investing as much in higher education as they should, Dr. Robinson, and President Trump's budget proposes a 14 percent cut in the Department of Education, diverts nearly four billion from Pell grants, reduces Pell by 1.3 billion, eliminating campus-based aid – I'm telling on him – campus-based aid and reductions in federal work-study and other cuts in crucial federal aid programs that our students and our seniors and our communities depend on.

The class of 2016 last year nationally graduated with an average of 37,000 in debt, the most in U.S. history.

But I got to tell you – there's value in a higher education and as a country we must invest in it. We got to increase affordability and access and reduce student loan default and protect student borrowers. And you know we can bail the government out. If we can bail Wall Street out, we've got to bail our students out.

You know, young ladies, now is your time to be part of the solution. Right now we're facing a time when that trumpet is required because the flute's not going to get it. You know the voices of Bennett women have always been courageous trumpets for our community, and you just heard it a moment ago, because Bennett Belles were always challenged to know their purpose and they were poised to stand their ground, and they couldn't help but know it.

And I'm sure these golden bells will tell you that Dr. Davis Dallas Jones walked this campus randomly and he would stop students and pose the question, "Young lady, what is your purpose?" A Belle knowing her purpose gained the ability to speak truth to power with clarity, just as the phenomenal leaders of institution, three of them sitting on this stage today, have always done.

1958 – Willa B. Player, the first woman president of the school, the first African-American woman to be president of any four-year liberal arts college, yet she allowed Martin Luther King Jr. to speak in the chapel when he was just a young man, wasn't allowed to speak anywhere else in this city.

As original organizers, yes the Bennett Belles sounded their trumpets and they helped plan the Woolworths sit-ins. It wasn't just A&T students – and I'm an Aggie but I'm telling on that – you know as early as 1937 you can hear the resounding sounds of the trumpets when Bennett Belles, yes they went downtown in their gloves and hats and they picketed the Carolina Theatre.

You know Bennett women have always been on the front line, sounding trumpets of possibility, trumpets of equality and fair play, because Bennett Belles – yes, you do it well. And you were taught that defeat was impossible and in spite of the evidence, Bennett Belles believe.

You know, faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.

And then Sandy Smith – a president here, SGA president – lost her life sounding her trumpet in the struggle for workers' rights and humanity. And the Nazi Klan massacre right here, not too far from this campus in the Morningside community.

Bennett Belles, it's important to understand that nothing can be accomplished on your own, that caring and compassion is a reciprocal obligation. So if you learn, you teach. If you give, you get. If you get, your give. And you don't just get it and go. You get it and you give. And let me say it again – you don't just get it and go. You get it in good.

So if you climb Jacob's ladder, young lady – Jennifer's ladder, let's say – with every round going higher and higher, you got the same obligation to those who lifted you to reach back and bring somebody else along, to be thy sisters' and my brothers' keepers.

And time is of the essence and you don't do anybody any good if you just stand around and talk the problem to death.

You know, Emerson told us that most of the shadows in one's life come from standing in one's own sunshine.

So Bennett Belles, you can't afford to stand in your own sunshine and don't let anybody else block your view. The time is right to always do what's right.

Graduates, you know some folks just need a chance, just need an opportunity, and Bennett College invested in you so that you can seize opportunity. You're the change makers. You're the movers and shakers. And yes, you must be the shakers of the world.

Because had it not been for preparation meeting opportunity, you could have been some place else. But instead you were sent in this world for such a time as this. So feel good about who you are – who you are – and don't apologize for being the strong women that you've become. And respect yourself and demand that same respect from other folks, and don't let anybody take you for granted, or your school. And maintain your respect for your mind and the knowledge of what you know, and build on what you don't know and what you need to know. Because sometimes we just need an opportunity.

Well Bennett has given that to you, and I salute you for the good choices that you've made. Because, you know, you do it well and you understand that when a trumpet is required a flute's who's not going to do.

I commend you for remaining committed, for setting goals, realizing your dreams.

And for such a time in our history you must embrace your responsibility as our nation's next leaders. So as you revolutionize your own dreams, build the kind of world that you want to see.

In President Obama's farewell address, he challenged our nation to accept responsibility for citizenship and not take our freedoms for granted. He challenged us to be the change makers, and we're confronted with the reminders today of discrimination and injustice everywhere. Every day in our community, terrorism inside our neighborhoods, inequities within our criminal justice system, and violence running rampant in our neighborhoods, prices going up and wages staying the same.

When a mother can't feed her children because the food ran out before the month did – that's not fair. When 1.8 million people in North Carolina worry about where the next meal's coming from – that's not fair. Food insecurity – it's a real problem in our communities.

There's a lot for you to do.

Don't just be concerned – be committed. There's a difference. When you're concerned about a problem, you just talk about it. You don't do much about it and your position is negotiable. But when you're truly committed, you don't just talk about the problem, you do something about it. You act and your position is never negotiable.

It's kind of like the chicken and the pig. The chicken that provides the eggs for the meal made a contribution but the pig that provided the bacon and thus gave his life, she made a commitment. So you see, commitment exceeds that of providing minimum substance. It goes far beyond that which is required.

Your revolution will be digitized. Your generation has taken the nation hostage by hashtags and tweets and posts and retweeting, and the president likes that, too, I guess. But take the social media – protect Planned Parenthood and health care, and fight against killing of our black sons and daughters on streets and neighborhoods, and speak truth to power and sound your trumpet and call out all forms of injustice.

There's no substitute for action. If you see something, say something. But then do something.

Because you know, Martin King reminded us that the world won't always remember the words of their enemies but they'll remember the silence of their friends.

And you are enough to start a movement. The final word is yours, graduates. Bennett Belles, your words can spark the change. You have the power to come together. Don't just agonize –organize. Don't sit down – stand up. Don't shut up – speak up.

And yeah, we've had some setbacks and we'll probably have some more, but a setback is just a setup for a comeback. And you know our history as a people has taught us how to survive and to come right back.

So in order to do that, you know, you got to be registered and you got to vote. I know I'm probably not talking to the right crowd, but you can't care more about new Jordans or Beyonce's "Lemonade" or Kanye's last rant than you do about who's in the White House, the statehouse, the U.S. House or who's controlling your school board, because somebody's going to make a decision for and about you, most times without you.

Remember Congressman [??] reminded us that politics is about who gets what, when and how much. So if you're not registered, you can't vote. If you don't vote, you're not counted. If you're not counted – guess what – you won't be heard.

And you know what I'm talking about. Why? Cause Bennett Belles are [pauses for audience to respond] [audience: "Glory Belles!"] All right get in the game, Bennett Belles. Trumpets are required for such a time and flutes are not going to do.

Your generation has led the way. When you saw something, you did something. When change was necessary, it was young people who did it. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, John Lewis – they were all young when they led the Civil Rights Movement.

So be that generation that solves the education crisis, that generation that closes the wealth gap and raises the minimum wage to a living wage, and be the generation that demands equal pay for women and get our other 30 cents, by the way. You know be the Belle that stands up for civil liberties and rights and voting rights, and be the generation that would not judge a person by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Be that Belle that stops the clock on climate change and makes the world greener and more sustainable. Be the generation that ends hunger and homelessness. Bennett Belles, you be the woman that makes the American dream a reality for every voice.

And get in the game and stay there. America needs trumpet voices like yours, Bennett Belles, because when a trumpet is required a flute's not going to do.

And in the final analysis and on truth we'll have the final word. The final word is all about power. Power is what makes the difference in lives and communities. The first thing you have to understand about power and how to get it – you don't ask somebody how to get it. You take it. And once you've taken it, you use it.

God bless you, Bennett Belles, and God bless Bennett College.

Bennett College (2017, May 6). Commencement 2017 (Video File). Retrieved on May 23, 2019 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vGsXXwg33Lo.