Alma Adams

Commencement Address at Clinton College - May 6, 2023

Alma Adams
May 06, 2023— Rock Hill, South Carolina
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Adams’ address begins at 40:27 in the video.

Good morning. Thank you to the president of Clinton College, Dr. Lester McCorn, the Reverend Dr. Lester McCorn, to Bishop Monroe and to all of the members of the Board of Trustees, to the faculty and staff, to all of the parents and friends, but most especially, most especially to the phenomenally awesome bold and courageous graduating class of 2023. Congratulations, Golden Bears! [applause]

Oh, they tell me I could do a call and response. C C! [audience response unintelligible] All right.

Mr. President, thank you for the invitation to be with you for Clinton's 2023 commencement to acknowledge the dynamic milestone of each of today's graduates and what they've achieved.

I'm proud to bring you cordial greetings this afternoon on behalf of more than 700,000 residents of North Carolina's 12th Congressional District in Mecklenburg County and Cabarrus County. I bring you greetings as well from the HBCU in my district, JCSU. And of course as an Aggie I've got to give you a good ‘ole Aggie Pride.

Let me also bring greetings on behalf of our speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, our majority leader Scalise, our minority leader Hakeem Jeffries—the first African-American to lead any party in the U.S Congress [applause].

And then of course I have to bring greetings from my brother, Mr. Jim Clyburn, Congressman Clyburn, who represents South Carolina and does a tremendous job for us. And then from the Congressional Black Caucus and our chair Steven Horsford and 59 members known as the Conscience of the Congress—we need that these days—and then from the bipartisan HBCU Caucus, of which I am founder and co-chair with Republican Congressman French Hill from Arkansas, I bring you greetings as well.

Dr. McCorn, thank you for that gracious introduction and for your untiring commitment to the 42:52 educational excellence and for your incredible leadership that you are providing as the 13th president of this historic Institution.

Now I guess by now you must know I am HBCU strong. And like me and Dr. McCorn and all of you here, I don't apologize for being called the godmother of HBCUs. That is my mission.

But I do want to tell you how sick and tired I am, like Fannie Lou Hamer, of that question that people continue to ask—do we do we still need HBCUs?

Yes, we do. And what in the hell would we have done without our HBCUs? [cheers and applause]

You see, we talked a lot today as we unveiled this building about vision and of course if there's no vision the people will perish. And you've got a president here, you've got a Board of Trustees, who's going to make sure that this school, this university, this college will never perish.

And graduates—what a privilege it is, indeed, to celebrate your moment of passage and your moments of accomplishment, because no one is born with a college degree in their hand. You gotta earn it. You gotta work for it.

And because of your resilience, you know it can never be taken away. You've reached this day because of your resilience and your tenacity and your talent, by overcoming challenges and adversity—including a pandemic.

And to your valedictorian who gave wonderful remarks, I've got to tell them that you say that everybody knows about Clinton College. Well, I didn't know much but I tell you I know about Clinton College now.

But always remember how you got here. Remember how you got over…and I've got to tell you, as the daughter of a minister and granddaughter as well, had it not been for the good Lord on your side and had it not been for family and friends and professors holding you up and praying you up and had it not been for Mom and them and la-di-da and everybody, you could have been someplace else.

And so to those moms and dads and grandparents and families and extended members—thank you for your support. Thank you for your guidance and helping to shape and mold these graduates as they've journeyed to this day. This is your day, too, so you got every right to rejoice and be glad about it. So let's give it up for all of our parents and friends who supported you on this day. [applause]

Class of 2023, as you become Clinton alums, you will have the awesome responsibility to continue the phenomenal legacy of this great institution, the oldest institution of higher education in Rock Hill, South Carolina, with a proud heritage as a Christian college, undergirded with purpose and building on the four pillars of scholarship and social change and spirituality and service.

Established in 1894 as a normal and industrial institute by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church during Reconstruction just 31 years after the Emancipation Proclamation to help eradicate illiteracy among freed men, this institution later became Clinton Junior College and has since effectively evolved as an accredited, four-year liberal arts HBCU known and respected as Clinton College.

You know, it's always been on our minds that a mind is a terrible thing to waste but certainly a wonderful thing to invest in. So Mr. President, I want to congratulate you on your recent TRACS 10-year accreditation renewal with flying colors, no errors. [applause] What a wonderful accomplishment. You know, I served 40 years on Bennett's campus so I know about accreditations.

But for all of the incredible accomplishments [inaudible], including cutting the ribbon that we did today, for excellence for your students coming in first place as well in the South Carolina IDEATHON –what a great idea.

So as your motto declares, the school has been and is a beacon of light for today's scholars and tomorrow's leaders. You've been HBCU-strong and you've continued to embrace the motto of “Excellence without Excuse.”

And so after a century and more than two decades, you're still committed to the founding mission of serving deserving yet underrepresented black populations and the promotion of a more just and humane society. Your academic environment not only promotes intellectual growth but it fosters moral and ethical and spiritual values.

So, graduates, you are part of the great Clinton history and that makes you HBCU strong.

You know the institution’s founders have always been clear as you need to be now about the college's unique mission and the requirement of service that you must now undertake beyond these walls as you leave here today. Because service is, indeed, the rent we pay for living on God's Earth.

And you know, like many of you, I'm a proud two-time graduate of a historically black college. Like many of you, I was the first in my family to go to college. And just as Clinton College did for you, an HBCU in Greensboro, North Carolina, took this poor black girl who walked those ghetto streets of Newark, New Jersey, and they made a committed investment in me.

My mother did domestic work. She cleaned and scrubbed white folks’ floors and she didn't get to go to college or to finish high school. She didn't go to an HBCU—or any CU for that matter—but she understood how important education would be in my life, and indeed it has been.

Because our HBCUs believe in opportunity and the fundamental importance of education that W.E.B Du Bois talked 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.

HBCUs embraced that fundamental right. And our schools value our students and we help them to realize that, students, you are not your circumstance. And where you start out in life doesn't have to determine where you'll end up in life or just how far you can go. Only you can determine your distance. Only you can determine that.

And so, after receiving my bachelor's and my master's degrees from North Carolina A&T State University, I went on to complete my Ph.D. at the Ohio State University—but only because of the North Carolina A&T, an HBCU.

And so after walking those ghetto streets, I'm now able, praise the Lord, to walk the halls of Congress. [applause]

Ad so as you receive your degrees today, I pray that you will always cherish and value your beginnings and stay focused on your history and don't lose sight of your journey and the road that you've traveled and the many bridges that helped you cross those troubled waters so you can sit where you're sitting today in those VIP seats.

Clinton College is the bridge that led you to where you are now and got you to where you needed to be. They shaped and molded you into what Clinton College always knew you could become.

And so as you reminisce on the distance that you've traveled, always remember had it not been for preparation meeting opportunity on this HBCU campus, you could have been someplace else. Might not have been where you wanted to be.

But instead you've come this far by faith, because somebody helped pave your way. You've been blessed with tenacity and courage and a hard work ethic, which I know they taught you here. Didn't you hear what the brother said about the peanut butter sandwich? [laughter]

But you see, I know that when you reach this milestone you reach back and you remember just as Presiding Elder Crockett and Rev. Robinson who founded this institution more than a century ago, but most especially it was God's grace that paved your way for such a time as this.

And so like the founders and their journey, graduates—I know yours wasn't easy. I've been there, done that. Stumbling blocks got in your way but you use those stumbling blocks as stepping stones to get you where we knew you could be.

Some of you lived and studied through the pandemic, but even during the pandemic you made it. It was not only a true test of your endurance but a reminder that faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. It's a reminder of the plans and your path ahead, for choosing the future by changing the present but remembering that you are now and your tomorrow all must be undergirded by the past.

So as you embark upon new beginnings, changing the present and choosing the future, Jeremiah 29:11 rings clear, because it says, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you, not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

So class of 2023, this scripture serves as a reminder to each of you that even though you'll face difficulties in this life, and God knows that you will, but God's promises are still true. He is faithful and he will bring you through.

And so as you look back on your time spent on this campus after you receive your degrees today, always remember that you didn't just complete an important chapter in your own story, but you also became part of the story of this great institution and its history that goes as far back as 129 years. A history of struggle and pain and sacrifice and suffering. You gain the persistence to endure and prosper.

Golden Bears, you're here on this historic campus not by accident but by God's plan for such a time as this. Clinton College might have served as your vehicle, but it was God Almighty who spearheaded your direction.

So graduates, your futures have been shaped on these hallowed grounds. So seize the opportunities that have been prepared for you. The institution's plan and hope for each student that walks through its doors has been to embrace the Clinton plan. As we choose the future by changing the past serving again a light for today's scholars and tomorrow's leaders.

Graduates, to whom much is given, much is required. Now that's a sacred scripture in the Gospel of Luke and one that I know you've heard over and over throughout your lifetime.

But Disciple Luke in this scripture teaches us that we are held responsible for what we have. And so if we're blessed with wealth and if we're blessed with knowledge and time and talents, it is expected that we use these well to glorify God and to bless others.

The Lord has blessed me and he's brought me from school board to Congress, now almost 40 years. But he didn't bless me for myself. He blessed me to be a blessing to others.

And so my challenge to you—don’t get it and go. Get it and give. Give back. Give back to your community. Give back to those who sacrificed for you. Give back to past generations who taught you wisdom. And give to the future generation who will look to you as leaders. And as future alums, I'ma tell you right now—give back to Clinton College. [applause]

And always, always stay focused and embrace the responsibilities that come with your degree. Because, Golden Bears, you are HBCU strong and you have been fully prepared to lead.

The obligations that come with a Clinton College education and how to fulfill those obligations will be determined by how you live your lives. What will you do for others?

Your leadership has prepared you to forge a path forward for a more equitable society. Today is in your hands, but the truth be told, tomorrow will be as well.

Had it not been for preparation meeting opportunity on this campus, you could have been someplace else. But your Clinton education has taught and it's shown you the way. Now you know the way. It's up to you to go the way. And I say, go all the way.

And so as our nation continues to persevere post-pandemic, it will be graduates like the class of 2023. We're going to depend on you to pick up that torch and lead our world out of the present darkness into the light.

And I've got to tell you—these are dark, dark, dark days.

It's your time to speak up, to step up, to stand up and if necessary—you know I have to sometimes—cut up.

Your generation has the power to change the way we do things, how we confront some of the hardest problems facing the world—climate change and artificial intelligence and famine and war and racism and violence and hunger and disease, including a pandemic.

So embrace a new Clinton College and go about changing those things. You have the power to develop your own social, economic, and political platforms in ways an aging group of policy leaders like me can only imagine.

Now, here in the world of Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and Instagram TikTok and Snapchat—you didn’t think I knew all that, right—you can reach billions in just seconds and you can produce change almost instantly.

You have all of the right dynamics, class, for a new frontier in America, in a very interesting time in our nation's history, a time of real opportunity but also a time of real challenge and change and struggle and pain.

But ultimately, ladies and gentlemen, this great nation will be judged not by a prosperous economy, not by entertainment amenities or the vitality of businesses, but by our compassion for others and our commitment to the next generation. [applause] New, creative, bold thinkers like we have sitting here today.

Class of 2023, you are HBCU strong.

And in closing, as you prepare to move on to other ventures, I want you to consider a few important things as you seek to accomplish those goals.

First of all, remember that life is not linear. It's not a straight line. So keep your sights on your goals but don't be afraid to round the few corners and curves and detours to explore new opportunities. And once those doors have opened for you, keep the doors open for someone to follow. [applause] And you know, as you climb Jacob's ladder, and every round is going to go higher and higher for you, reach back and bring somebody else along.

But be open to your dreams. Have hope and even if those dreams seem impossible, strive to achieve them anyway.

And then believe in yourselves and what you can do and don't let anybody else define you. There's an old African proverb that says, it's not what they call you, it's what you answer to. So you answer to what and who you know you ought to be called and answer to nothing else.

And then keep learning and empower yourself with knowledge and with skills, because knowledge is what makes the difference, power in lives and communities. But the first thing you have to understand about power and how to get it—you don't ask somebody how to get it or where it is or can you have it—you take it. And once you've taken it, you use it.

And then exhibit good standards of character and integrity, because it is the character that distinguishes you as an individual.

And then finally, make good choices. Be accountable and persistent as you face the many challenges that will surely come.

Class of 2023, we need your generation's creativity. We need your passion. We need your drive. We need your persistence.

Because you are HBCU strong. And I see of you, the kind of energy and hope and determination that reminds me of why I am so optimistic about the future of America, right here. [applause]

You're better positioned now as someone who has completed undergraduate school here at Clinton College. And growing opportunities await you, in health and education, religion, energy, natural and social sciences, in the arts, and all forms of technology and communications.

So graduates, continue to embrace Clinton's motto, expect excellence—“Excellence without Excuse.”

This is your time—your time of new beginnings, a time when your Clinton College preparation will meet the many opportunities that await you. And so as you do that, remember what Emerson said a long time ago. He said that most of the shadows in one's lifetime come from standing in one's own sunshine.

And so as we embrace a new Clinton College and as your journey unfolds a bright future, don't be a shadow in your own sunshine. Don't stand in your own way. And don't allow anybody else to block your view. You are HBCU strong.

Congratulations, Golden Bears. God bless you. [Applause]

Clinton College Rock Hill, SC. “2023 Spring Commencement.” YouTube video, 24:19. May 6, 2023.