By 1994 Colin Powell, the son of a Jamaica-born Harlem merchant, had already served as National Security Adviser to President George Herbert Walker Bush and chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Persian Gulf War. He would become the first African American Secretary of State in 2001 under President George W. Bush. On May 14, 1994, however, Powell most important task of the day was as commencement speaker at Howard University in Washington, D.C. His address appears below.
The real challenge in being a commencement speaker is figuring out how long to speak. The graduating students want a short speech, five to six minutes and let’s get it over. They are not going to remember who their commencement speaker was anyway. P O W E L L.
Parents are another matter. Arrayed in all their finery they have waited a long time for this day, some not sure it would ever come, and they want it to last. So go on and talk for two or three hours. We brought our lunch and want our money’s worth.
The faculty member who suggested the speaker hopes the speech will be long enough to be respectable, but not so long that he has to take leave for a few weeks beginning Monday.
So the poor speaker is left figuring out what to do. My simple rule is to respond to audience reaction. If you are appreciative and applaud a lot early on, you get a nice, short speech. If you make me work for it, we’re liable to be here a long time.
You know, the controversy over Howard’s speaking policy has its positive side. It has caused the university to go through a process of self-examination, which is always a healthy thing to do. Since many people have been giving advice about how to handle this matter, I thought I might as well too.
First, I believe with all my heart that Howard must continue to serve as an institute of learning excellence where freedom of speech is strongly encouraged and rigorously protected. That is at the very essence of a great university and Howard is a greet university.
And freedom of speech means permitting the widest range of views to be present for debate, however controversial those views may be. The First Amendment right of free speech is intended to protect the controversial and even outrageous word, and not just comforting platitudes, too mundane to need protection.
Some say that by hosting controversial speakers who shock our sensibilities, Howard is in some way promoting or endorsing their message. Not at all. Howard has helped put their message in perspective while protecting their right to be heard. So that the message can be exposed to the full light of day.
I have every confidence in the ability of the administration, the faculty and the students of Howard to determine who should speak on this campus. No outside help needed, thank you.
I also have complete confidence in the students of Howard to make informed, educated judgments about what they hear.
But for this freedom to hear all views, you bear a burden to sort out wisdom from foolishness. There is great wisdom in the message of self reliance, of education, of hard work, and of the need to raise strong families. There is utter foolishness, evil, and danger in the message of hatred, or of condoning violence, however cleverly the message is packaged or entertainingly it is presented. We must find nothing to stand up and cheer about or applaud in a message of racial or ethnic hatred.
I was at the inauguration of President Mandela in South Africa earlier this week. You were there too by television and watched that remarkable event. Together, we saw what can happen when people stop hating and begin reconciling. DeKlerk the jailer became DeKlerk the liberator, and Mandela the prisoner became Mandela the president. Twenty seven years of imprisonment did not embitter Nelson Mandela. He invited his three jail keepers to the ceremony. He used his liberation to work his former tormentors to create a new South Africa and to eliminate the curse of apartheid from the face of the earth. What a glorious example! What a glorious day it was!
Last week you also saw Prime Minister Rabin and PLO Chairman Arafat sign another agreement on their still difficult, long road to peace, trying to end hundreds of years of hatred and two generations of violence. Palestinian authorities have now begun entering Gaza and Jericho.
In these two historic events, intractable enemies of the past have shown how you can join hands to create a force of moral authority more powerful than any army and which can change the world.
Although there are still places of darkness in the world where the light of reconciliation has not penetrated, these two beacons of hope show what can be done when men and women of goodwill work together for peace and for progress.
There is a message in these two historic events for us assembled here today. As the world goes forward, we cannot start going backward. African Americans have come too far and we have too far yet to go to take a detour into the swamp of hatred. We, as a people who have suffered so much from the hatred of others must not now show tolerance for any movement or philosophy that has at its core the hatred of Jews or anyone else. Our future lies in the philosophy of love and understanding and caring and building. Not of hatred and tearing down.
We know that. We must stand up for it and speak up for it! We must not be silent if we would live up to the legacy of those who have gone before us from this campus.
I have no doubt that this controversy will pass and Howard University will emerge even stronger, even more than ever a symbol of hope, of promise, and of excellence. That is Howard’s destiny!
Ambassador Annenberg, one of your honorees today, is a dear friend of mine and is one of America’s leading businessmen and greatest philanthropists. You have heard of his recent contribution to American education and his generous gift to Howard. A few years ago I told Mr. Annenberg about a project I was involved in to build a memorial to the Buffalo Soldiers, those brave black cavalrymen of the West whose valor had long gone unrecognized. Ambassador Annenberg responded immediately, and with his help the memorial now stands proudly at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
The Buffalo Soldiers were formed in 1867, at the same time as Howard University. It is even said that your mascot, the bison, came from the bison, or buffalo, soldiers.
Both Howard and the Buffalo Soldiers owe their early success to the dedication and faith of white military officers who served in the Civil War. In Howard’s case, of course, it was your namesake, Major General Oliver Howard.
For the 10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers, it was Colonel. Benjamin Grierson who formed and commanded that regiment for almost twenty five years. And he fought that entire time to achieve equal status for his black comrades.
Together, Howard University and the Buffalo Soldiers showed what black Americans were capable of when given the education and opportunity; and when shown respect and when accorded dignity.
I am a direct descendant of those Buffalo Soldiers, of the Tuskegee Airmen, and of the Navy’s Golden Thirteen, and Montfort Point Marines, and all the black men and women who served this nation in uniform for over three hundred years. All of whom served in their time and in their way and with whatever opportunity existed then to break down the walls of discrimination and racism to make the path easier for those of us who came after them.
I climbed on their backs and stood on their shoulders to reach the top of my chosen profession to become chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff. I will never forget my debt to them and to the many white “Colonel Griersons” and “General Howards” who helped me over the thirty five years of my life as a soldier. They would say to me now, “Well done. And now let others climb up on your shoulders.”
Howard’s Buffalo Soldiers did the same thing, and on their shoulders now stand governors and mayors and congressman and generals and doctors and artists and writers and teachers and leaders in every segment of American society. And they did it for the class of 1994. So that you can now continue climbing to reach the top of the mountain, while reaching down and back to help those less fortunate.
You face “Great Expectations.” Much has been given to you and much is expected from you. You have been given a quality education, presented by a distinguished faculty who sit here today in pride of you. You have inquiring minds and strong bodies given to you by God and by your parents, who sit behind you and pass on to you today their still unrealized dreams and ambitions. You have been given citizenship in a country like none other on earth, with opportunities available to you like nowhere else on earth, beyond anything available to me when I sat in a place similar to this thirty six years ago.
What will be asked of you is hard work. Nothing will be handed to you. You are entering a life of continuous study and struggle to achieve your goals. A life of searching to find that which you do well and love doing. Never stop seeking.
I want you to have faith in yourselves. I want you to believe to the depth of your soul that you can accomplish any task that you set your mind and energy to. I want you to be proud of your heritage. Study your origins. Teach your children racial pride and draw strength and inspiration from the cultures of our forebears.
Not as a way of drawing back from American society and its European roots. But as a way of showing that there are other roots as well. African and Caribbean roots that are also a source of nourishment for the American family tree. To show that African Americans are more than a product of our slave experience. To show that our varied backgrounds are as rich as that of any other American not better or greater, but every bit as equal.
Our black heritage must be a foundation stone we can build on, not a place to withdraw into. I want you to fight racism. But remember, as Dr. King and Dr. Mandela have taught us, racism is a disease of the racist. Never let it become yours. White South Africans were cured of the outward symptoms of the disease by President Mandela’s inauguration, just as surely as black South Africans were liberated from apartheid. Racism is a disease you can help cure by standing up for your rights and by your commitment to excellence and to performance. By being ready to take advantage of your rights and the opportunities that will come from those rights.
Never let the dying hand of racism rest on your shoulder, weighing you down. Let racism always be someone else’s burden to carry. As you seek your way in the world, never fail to find a way to serve your community. Use your education and your success in life to help those still trapped in cycles of poverty and violence. Above all, never lose faith in America. Its faults are yours to fix, not to curse.
America is a family. There may be differences and disputes in the family, but we must not allow the family to be broken into warring factions. From the diversity of our people, let us draw strength and not cause weakness. Believe in America with all your heart and soul and mind. It remains the “last best hope of Earth.” You are its inheritors and its future is today placed in your hands.
Go forth from this place today inspired by those who went before you. Go forth with the love of your families and the blessings of your teachers.
Go forth to make this a better country and society. Prosper, raise strong families, remembering that all you will leave behind is your good works and your children.
Go forth with my humble congratulations.
And let your dreams be your only limitations. Now and forever.
Thank you and God bless you.
Have a great life!