Nannie Helen Burroughs

The Challenge of the New Day: Commencement Address at Tuskegee University - May 24, 1934

Nannie Helen Burroughs
May 24, 1934— Tuskegee University, Alabama
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Burroughs was the first woman to give a spring commencement address at Tuskegee University.

We are on the most sacred spot in America and in the world. We are on the grounds dedicated to the future hopes and dreams, aspirations and prophesies of the founders of our democracy. You and I today are surrounded by the most marvelous achievement that has taken place in American history during the past seventy years. The class that returns here today after ten years on the firing line witnesses a new Tuskegee, its magnificent buildings, its marvelously improved campus, its splendid and modern equipment, its great faculty and the Commander-in-chief in the person of the President of Tuskegee Institute.

Today I shall speak to you as members of the graduating class and as men and women who are going to contribute their part to the building of a great, new, vital social order on our continent—you who are going to dedicate yourselves again to those spiritual and moral ideals which moved the founders of our country to build on this continent a government of the people, by the people and for the people, and as Abraham Lincoln said in his famous Gettysburg Speech, he entertained the hope that “a government so conceived and so dedicated shall not perish from the earth.” If the saints are permitted to look from the battlements of heaven today they rejoice to witness this magnificent scene in the heart of the deep South wherein you are making the spiritual and social and economic contributions to our great republic. They must be happy today to see here in the midst of our new dreams, new hopes and aspirations this magnificent audience of white and black people who believe that we shall in deed and in truth build on this continent a Christian civilization not for blacks, not for whites but for all who shall come to our land and contribute spiritual, moral, social and economic advancement to the world.

I shall talk to you this afternoon on the “Challenge of the New Day.” First of all what is the new day? The new day is the day Tennyson visioned in Locksley Hall:

“When I dipt into the future far as human eye could see;
Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be.
Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battleflags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.
There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.”

As you go forth from here today I would have you realize that the things that have been prophesied, all the things that have been promised, all the things that are to be reaped in abundance in this world shall be enjoyed by you. Not by gift, but by struggle, by sacrifice, by indomitable will, by courage, by hope and by every human and spiritual effort that is possible for you to put forth in whatever fields you shall labor and find yourself. And as you go forth from here you will work for six things. You will dedicate yourselves to a new social order and to the building of it in the hearts of men. You will work first of all for life—abundant life— life promised by Him who came over two thousand years ago and said that he came that we might have life and that we might have it more abundantly.

You will work for liberty—absolute and complete freedom for all men of every nation under all suns and skies and flags. You will dedicate yourselves as did the man who fired the hearts and imaginations of the American people in the great struggle of the Revolution. You will stand forth as men and women in a new day facing a new challenge and speaking as did that famous, humble American who interpreted the hopes and dreams of centuries that are to come. Out of humble Williamsburg, Virginia, realizing the purposes for which this republic was founded, Patrick Henry stood forth as you shall stand forth and declared for our new day and for those new challenges that “it matters not the cost to other men but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.” That challenge to America, that rededication to the Declaration of Independence rings and reverberates in the hearts of all men in America, in the North and in the South.

You shall work for another ideal. You shall work for love, the love of humanity, the love of the humblest—the least man and the lost man whether he lives in America or in India or in China or in Burma or in the isles of the sea. We shall work and dedicate ourselves to the end that all men everywhere shall enjoy the love of God and develop the best that is in them. And we shall not by act nor deed nor word nor association put a single stumbling block in the way of any humble struggling human being in all the world. We shall work for love.

You shall go forth and accept the new challenge not only for love but for learning. There is no substitute for learning. The hope of every hamlet and section of our America and every part of the world wherever mankind is found is that we shall give men the learning which Tuskegee represents—the learning which all great schools have. Schools that have received the sacrificial benedictions of philanthropists and the wonderful and rich contributions of the tax-payers of America and the world. It is the investment of our hopes and dreams for the generations that are to come. We shall dedicate ourselves to the great ideal that all men everywhere must know—must learn—must be given an opportunity to develop the best in them. You must dedicate yourselves—your mental powers to the fields in which you find yourselves—to science, to art, to literature.

Then you must work for another “L”—Labor. Work for it to the point that every man, high or low, will be given an opportunity to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow, to contribute to the support of his family, to purchase a home, to cultivate his own farm and like the famous blacksmith that every child knows about he can “look the whole world in the face for he owes not any man.”

We must work for leisure. Having worked for life, for liberty, for love, for learning, and for an opportunity to labor, and having dedicated ourselves to the advancement of human society in whatever field we find ourselves, we owe it to ourselves and to our great social order to spend our hours of leisure away from work and toil and strife, that we may learn again what to man and what to God we owe. It will be that great period of meditation, of renewing our spiritual selves from which we may go forth into the struggle of life, into the great avenues of employment and take our place beside our brother. It is this ideal of leisure for which we shall have to battle all over our country and the world. As long as men and women are being turned out of schools like this, we shall dedicate ourselves to the great ideal of giving them a chance to devote themselves to these things for the advancement of human society, to the development of cultural things that make life worthwhile.

So we rededicate ourselves to the new day in spite of the darkness that surrounds us, in spite of the depression, which after all is not a depression only but a sort of spiritual, moral and social discipline through which we are passing. When we come out of it as individuals, as groups or as nations, if we have taken our medicine like men and women, we are going develop for the next generation whether it be twenty-five or fifty or a hundred years hence a type of man and woman stronger and more durable mentally, socially and spiritually. This discipline through which we are passing is going to be the best tonic that we have ever had, serving to tone up our inner equipment.

We are going to accept the challenge to build a new social order. We have dedicated ourselves for the past hundred years to building a Material civilization and there are those who sit in this audience today who are in doubt and wonder what is going to become of us when the things all around us seem to be crumbling and failing; when bank accounts and great fortunes which were built up in the past hundred or more years have been wiped away; when the material possessions that we had, homes, farms and things of the flesh have been taken away. You stand in wonderment as to what will become of us. When we talk about the war clouds that are gathering in Europe, Russia, China or in South America, when all European territory is in a restless condition and in America we talk of the failures of the past few years, you are shocked with the facts and begin to think that all civilization is trembling in the balance and that nobody knows when the night will come. I stand here young men and young women of the Class of 1934, and say to you that what you see all about you are things material, nothing to be compared with those things moral and spiritual out of which you are going to build the new social order.

The Lord is preparing some spiritual giant, some magnetic human being to deliver the people from the bondage of this material world. We are going to be more humanitarian, more spiritual and dynamic. It is to be a civilization such as we have never known.

So this afternoon you young men and women who are soon going away sit here in doubt, and wonder whether you will get a job, whether there is a ready-made job for you in the world. I have come all the way down to Tuskegee to tell you no! All the jobs we have had are taken. There are no ready-made jobs anywhere; but there are one hundred and twenty million jobs that can be made; and that is your job. If you can’t take that challenge, if you can’t go out and blaze new trails and find new avenues of employment make new roads, find new highways and discover new ways to do old things—if you can’t do that, well, “look to the Lord and be dismissed.”

Open your mouth and the Lord will fill it—with air.

The civilization now in the making, spiritual, moral, social and mental is yours. It is yours to make, yours to possess and yours to glorify. Men before you made the civilization of which they were a part or they gave to the world new ideas and started it off on a new trail. We have come over it for some two thousand years working on the ideals and dreams of one man here and another there, in one generation after another. We started it with that man who came to redeem this world with an individual ideal of human brotherhood, social justice and the idea of peace on earth good will toward men. For two thousand years the world has been marching toward that social ideal. We have not arrived and we are thousands of years distant from it, but we are facing in the right direction, marching towards justice, equality, brotherhood.

During these thousands of years men have waged bloody warfare for life, liberty, love, learning, labor and leisure and it is in part going to be realized by this generation; then they will pass on the torch to another generation. But we are going to witness a new heaven and a new earth right here worked out in the hearts of men. It is coming in proportion as we dedicate our faith, our courage, our hopes and our indomitable will. Young people, there is no force on earth, no handicap, no barrier on earth that can stay any race or individual who organizes its courage, its faith, its hopes, its industry and its indomitable will. You can’t defeat it. You may delay it, or place a barrier around; you may block up the stream, but it will swing around the dam and join the current and continue on its way to the great ocean beyond.

I want you today to remember that there are thousands of men who dream dreams for you; you are realizing some of them today. But you do not realize it fully because you are too near to it, too much a part of it, to sense what is taking place right here in the southland. Today in spite of the prejudice, barriers and handicaps we are thousands and thousands of years, which are but a yesterday in the divine plan, thousands of years beyond the dreams of our fathers over seventy years ago. It has been a marvelous development in such little time.

It is a long way from an ox-cart to a good car hitting on all cylinders, but you have made it and you have made it in less than twenty-five years. And we are going to make more speed—I mean mental, moral, social and spiritual speed in the next twenty-five years than we have made in the past one hundred years. We are going to make it because we desire it. In the heart of every young man who sits in this audience today is the desire to be a man, to be somebody and to do something and to go somewhere. It is in the heart and it is burning as a spirit aflame. Out of that human desire we are going to create a civilization characterized by courage, faith, hope, cooperation and sympathy. We are going to get it because men desire it. It is true of every generation. Martin Luther’s reformation was a success because he dreamed a dream. Yes, that is true, but there was in the hearts of millions of people of his day the desire for certain spiritual freedom. They hungered and thirsted for it and when he tacked the thesis on the door and was responsible for the calling of the Diet of Worms, it was a declaration of what men had desired for generations hence they caught it up, fanned the flame and baptized it with the spirit of their great desire. So today, we are marching to a new reformation of social and spiritual betterment in spite of difficulties. I would have you realize that in the challenge of our new day these things are going to come in America and in the world. We are going to forget this incidental thing, color, and come to the day of which Emerson wrote, “if you can make a better mouse-trap, or preach a better sermon than anybody else though you build your house in the woods the world is going to make a beaten path to your door.”

What are some of things to be done? First, we have got to have better automobiles. Those out there twenty-five years from now will be objects of curiosity in some museum. They will go out of style but some mind is going to conceive new ways to build automobiles and to improve them. Some mind is going to conceive new things in medicine, new ways of keeping men well, ways of building in men the physical and moral stamina that will enable them to carry on in their work. Some mind is going to conceive a finer and better way of lighting our homes and heating our houses. We now heat them from things in the cellar called furnaces or stoves but some mind is going to conceive a way of heating homes directly from the mine without hauling coal from all over the United States and then carrying it downstairs. They are going to get sense enough to pipe it to us so we can press a button and have heat. Somebody is going to conceive a finer and better way to stay up in the air. The world will not think of the color of the skin but will accept whatever contrivance or machine or conveyance that will get one safely where one wants to go—and on time.

I want you to take the struggles, the hardships and the handicaps of this civilization and turn them into stepping-stones. That is what other races have done, black and white. Disregarding handicaps, they have decided within their own souls that they were men and could look this old world in the face, could beat down barriers and climb the rough side of the mountain. I heard an old woman praying one time. She asked, “Lord please don’t take me up on the rough side of the mountain.” I spoke to her afterwards and told her please not to include me in that number because that was not the side I wanted to go up on. I wanted to go up on the rough side because I knew there was some chance for me to get to the top, but if I went up the smooth side I might slip down. You young men and young women are going up the rough side of the mountain, going through handicaps and barriers; you will have to meet the struggles of this world but out of the depression you are going to come forth a new group of men and women, strong and with powerful characteristics and lasting influence.

From Tuskegee Messenger 10, no. 6 (June 1934): 2, 11.

As transcribed in Graves, Kelisha B. (ed.) 2019. Nannie Helen Burroughs: A Documentary Portrait of an Early Civil Rights Pioneer, 1900–1959. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.