Lucy McBath

Commencement Address at Virginia State University – May 19, 2019

Lucy McBath
May 19, 2019— Ettrick, Virginia
Print friendly

Good afternoon, my fellow Trojans!

President Abdullah, Provost Palm, faculty, distinguished guests, family and most importantly, the class of 2019—thank you for inviting me here today. Thank you for welcoming me home. It's an honor to deliver your commencement address this afternoon.

Yes, my name is Lucy Macbeth, and I am the congresswoman for Georgia's sixth congressional district. I am the first Democrat to hold this seat since 1979 in Georgia. I am the first person of color to receive the Democratic nomination for this seat in Georgia. And I am the first person of color to ever hold the seat in the history in the state of Georgia.

This is what VSU produces. I am a very proud alumni of Virginia State University. I am a proud Trojan. And it's great to be back in the land of Troy.

I remember Byrd Hall—the pink walls in my room. I remember our cafeteria where you only got one choice of food—whatever they cooked for you that day. I remember studying and the stacks of the library were where it was quiet and I could really just get so totally, deeply ingrained into learning my craft. And I remember writing my masters-level thesis in undergraduate school right here. That very paper may be in the library at this time. And I do remember those wonderful days of being a pyramid, pledging Delta Sigma Theta sorority right here at Alpha Eta chapter.

I graduated from Virginia State University in 1982 with a bachelor's degree in political science, but my story starts years earlier in Illinois, in the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. From the time that I could walk, I was marching with my family, shouting for equality and calling for justice. I often used to joke that the first song I ever learned to sing was "We Shall Overcome."

I have fond and very vivid memories of my father inviting guests to our home to prepare for the marches the next day. Even as a little girl I understood how important the work of civil rights activism was, and I didn't know it at the time but my early experience and exposure to activism helped to prepare me for my advocacy work and for the job that I hold today.

Everything that has happened in my life, everything that I have survived and everything I have accomplished prepared me for what I am doing now. And that journey truly began with my father. My father laid the foundation on which my entire life was built.

Dad was educated. He was a veteran of World War II and he was a dentist. He also lived the experience of a black man in America. When my dad sat down at a lunch counter for a cup of coffee, that same cup of coffee that cost the white man sitting next to him ten cents, cost my father a quarter. And it was the luncheonette's way of saying, we don't want you here. But my dad answered by standing tall and saying, I am here and I am NOT going away.

Now my father may not have been a lawyer, but he thought and he thought like one. He became the president of the Illinois branch of the NAACP while he was still running his dental practice and raising his children. He worked with Lyndon Baines Johnson to draft the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I actually have pictures of him at that table with Lyndon Baines Johnson on my phone. Everything that he did here in his time on Earth came back to civil rights.

He taught me how to stand on the right side of right and instilled in me a commitment to nothing less than justice, and I am so grateful to him for that lesson. He passed that legacy of activism on to me. I grew up witnessing the Civil Rights Movement up close.

Watching the sacrifices that my parents made for civil rights shaped my early political identity. I can remember coming home and finding my father fast asleep in his chair at night with the lights on, papers still in his hand after a very long day at work. And recently I have found myself having those same moments after late nights in Washington.

Having a front-row seat to the Civil Rights Movement in Illinois made a strong impression on my political identity. But my college education played an equally powerful role in shaping the person that I am today.

I spent a great deal of time here in Virginia. My mother's side of the family lives in Petersburg and Dinwiddie, and I was always fascinated to learn about the roots of our family tree in Dinwiddie County. When I was deciding where to attend college, I had a lot of choices to make. I considered pursuing an Ivy League education or going to Howard University with the rest of my family. But when making the decision to attend VSU, I chose to come back to my roots.

The professors that I had here at VSU made an investment in their students because of who we were. They understood the gravity of their status as professors at a historically black college. The opportunity to learn from people who looked like me was so incredibly valuable. Those experiences in the classroom reinforced lessons I began learning from my parents, that no matter how the world may see you you can stand tall and say I am here and I am NOT going away.

My professors were engaged and I was competitive. Back then, there were only a handful of women in the political science department at VSU and I was determined to be one of the best. I worked in an internship with then-state Senator Douglas Wilder, who went on to become the first black governor in America since Reconstruction.

My internship with Doug Wilder provided insight into how our government works and how policy is formed. And I took these experiences with me to an internship with the Washington bureau of the NAACP—another eye-opening experience into the world of politics and the legislative process. I loved learning about how our government worked and I was fascinated by the democratic process.

I may have earned my degree in political science but I never planned on serving government, let alone becoming a member of Congress. The truth is, I never imagined that I would be here today. I was always enthralled with politics but I didn't want a career in it. Then seven years ago I found myself on a path that I did not choose, fighting a battle that I did not start, advocating to change dangerous gun laws I never even knew existed.

On Black Friday in 2012, my son Jordan Davis was shot and killed by a man at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida—my only son, who was only 17 years old. He was violently torn from my life. Jordan was sitting in the backseat of a friend's car when a man who didn't like the loud music that he and his friends were playing opened fire on this car of unarmed teenagers, robbing my son of his life and the life that I saw in front of me in the gleaming bright future of a talented, funny, beautiful young man suddenly ceased to exist.

I found myself questioning how such a tragedy could happen to me, but I had only seen the very same tragedy happen to Trayvon Martin just nine months before. I wrestled with questions of faith and questions about the countless black men and boys who live their lives in fear of an incident such as this. I wanted to know how were these tragedies happening and why were our leaders not speaking up.

And that's how my advocacy began. I took those very difficult questions about policy and the laws that were meant to protect us, and I brought them to the state leaders in Georgia and state leaders across the country, and then to the politicians in Washington, D.C.

I channeled my pain into progress on gun violence prevention, a sacred act of parenting because the most important job title I hold and will always hold will be Jordan's mother. I began my advocacy first as a grieving mother, then as a faith and outreach leader for Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and then as a candidate for state House seat in Georgia.

And I was perfectly content running for that seat in the state legislature. But then I watched in horror as yet another school shooting took place in Parkland, Florida. Again our elected officials, tasked with protecting us, failed to act. So after Parkland I knew I had to stand up and do more.

You see, the promise of American politics is that if you do not like the laws, you can change them. Furthermore there's absolutely nothing more powerful than a mother on a mission. So even though I didn't plan to lose my son, even though I did not plan to become a mother of the movement to prevent gun violence, and even though I did not plan to become a member of the United States Congress, my entire life's experience led up to this very moment.

Everything I learned and everything I did prepared me to be the woman that I am today—a mother, an activist, and now the congresswoman representing the people of Georgia's sixth congressional district. I have been prepared for a time such as this.

Now I thought it was important for me to share my story with all of you because you are about to embark on your own journeys—a journey that is likely to include many, many twists and turns. And I could never have predicted my life's journey and my trajectory when I stepped off the stage at my graduation here in 1982. But I know that every moment of my life taught me a lesson and prepared me for everything that would come my way.

So as you depart this place today and look towards the future, think of your journey as a marathon and not a sprint. Relish each step of the way and know that what you do now will have an impact on the rest of your life. When things feel difficult, your family and your community—remember, they will all be in this with you for the long haul.

Know that you have been prepared to receive the best that America has to offer you. Do not be afraid. You are ready, like the thousands of Trojans who have walked this stage before you.

And I want you to join me. I have told my story, but it's important to understand that my story is not about me. My story is about you. My story includes you. My story is a stepping stone for your futures. My story is about you.

My story is about this country, this world. We need your help. Your life experiences and your input are incredibly valuable. You all have a story to tell and gifts to share to the world.

Former President Barack Obama once said, "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones that we have been waiting for. You are the ones that we have been waiting for."

These are the words that fill my soul each and every day, and they are the words that I want to pass along to you as you embark on this exciting new chapter in your life.

I believe that your generation of young people is far more equipped than any other to encourage and stimulate change. However, in order to be engaged in change you must know your purpose and you must know you have a place.

I believe that the purpose of life is to truly live a life of purpose. As my pastor says, we are put on this Earth not to be remembered but to make a positive difference for others. It's important to live a life which requires you to act upon your core values and your morals.

You can live a life investing in the interest and welfare of others. You can live a life that expresses your talents and your gifting. We are called to use our gifts to bless others in ways that leave an indelible mark on their lives.

So you must rise to the challenge of the day and heed your responsibilities to help heal what ails our society. Some of you will become teachers. Some of you will become doctors. Some of you will become lawyers. And yes, some of you may even join me in Washington.

Not all of you may be politicians, but my charge to each of you is to make sure that you use the talents and the skills you've honed here at VSU to make a positive difference for someone else. You have been chosen for a time such as this.

People ask me how have I been able to press on after such a tragedy in my life. How have I become a gun safety advocate, and how did I learn to navigate my way to Washington? The answer is I'm still learning, and you must always continue to strive to learn.

What I know for sure is that sometimes our most tragic moments transform us into who we really are, who we are meant to be. Each day I simply put one foot in front of the other and I know that the good Lord will always lead my way. The good Lord will always lead your way, when you choose to live a life of purpose,

When you walk out that door today the road is rocky and the hills are steep. There will be times when you want to turn back or take that shortcut just around the corner. But always be inspired by the idea that your life is meaningful. Your life matters. You have value.

And as you climb those hills, remember you have two arms—one to pull yourself up and the other to reach back and help those that are coming behind you. Come to the understanding that what you do with your life matters in the universe. You have a responsibility to operate going forward in a world that will challenge your morals and your values. And I implore you to hold fast to the truth and the honor as you navigate your path.

Be mindful to seek justice and righteousness for the sake of those that come behind you. Success is more than what you earn. Success is more than your job title.

As Booker T. Washington once said, "I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has or she has had to overcome while trying to succeed."

All of you are about to embark on a journey and I am so proud of each and every one of you for making this decision and for striving for greatness. You have earned your degrees with long nights, challenging course loads, and a voracious drive to learn. And you will always carry with you the indomitable Trojan spirit instilled in you by the faculty, staff, administrators and your peers.

The world is waiting for your talent. The world is waiting for your energy. The world is waiting for you.

As Trojans, we are bound together by a common cause and we must take seriously our responsibility to build a better world with the knowledge, the wisdom and the tools that you've been given here at Virginia State University.

I challenge you to stand up, be courageous, go forth, take the world by storm. We are waiting for you.

God bless.