Commencement 2021

Good morning! I would like to extend my most enthusiastic greetings to the Class of 2021 and the Class of 2020 as well as to everyone who plays such a critical role in the extended Howard community – students and alumni, faculty and staff, the Board of Trustees, friends and family. Welcome to our University’s 153rd Commencement Convocation. While I wish we could all celebrate in-person today, it is still a blessing that we can come together in some fashion.

The unusual times we are living in have, unfortunately, become more and more familiar. During the pandemic, we have grown accustomed to forgoing gatherings, skipping cherished pastimes and bypassing traditions. Even as we, hopefully, approach the end of the pandemic, we are not yet in a position to return to normal and completely restore the routines and rituals that we had before. 

But commencement is a tradition that is far too important to ever consider canceling. Regardless of how we come together, we must find a way to communally congratulate our graduates on this tremendous achievement.

The earning of a Howard degree, no matter what the course of study or when it was conferred, is always worthy of praise and celebration. However, the Class of 2020 and the Class of 2021, you have endured more than any other graduates in recent memory. This degree is more than just a commemoration of the culmination of your education. It is truly a badge of honor. You have all demonstrated tremendous resolve and resilience to reach this milestone. Under difficult personal and national circumstances, you decided to double down on your academics. At a time when no one could have faulted you for becoming complacent or distracted, you pursued your studies with a renewed passion because the pandemic reinforced what you were studying for.

When the coronavirus caused nationwide shutdowns in March 2020, it both unleashed a series of new crises and revealed the ongoing calamities our country had failed to deal with or resolve. COVID-19’s disproportionate devastation of the Black community was exacerbated by a history of health care disparities and a legacy of inequality and injustice. The economic turmoil so many African-American families and communities felt over the past year have their origins in discriminatory practices experienced generations ago. These are problems that we most confront with renewed urgency. We cannot allow them to be swept under the rug of history.

Today’s commencement speaker is known for pulling up that rug to expose what hidden ills of our society lie beneath. And he works hard, not just to reveal the dirt, but to clean it up.

Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama that has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aiding children prosecuted as adults.

Mr. Stevenson has dedicated his life to the notion that you can transform a society by uplifting individual people.

We have invited him to speak today because his is an example that you all should strive to follow and emulate. I hope that you all will seek to replicate and his passion and impact for serving the underserved and changing the world.

I know these are heavy burdens to place upon your shoulders. But the magnitude of the challenges we face have never yet managed to discourage Howard students. The enormity of our problems have yet to overwhelm the determination of students at the Mecca.

I know none of you will shrink from these lofty expectations – they will only serve to inspire and motivate you. But you would do well to remember that, as much as you are charged as individuals to change the world, you don’t have to do it alone, and you don’t have to start from scratch. You can lean on each other for support. You can work together, establish partnerships, pool resources, share ideas. To magnify your impact as an individual, you have to collaborate with other people.

In addition, I hope you remember that you have the weight of history behind you – not dragging you backward, but pushing you forward. You also have the momentum of the present pulling you onward toward a better future.

In the aftermath of crisis, we often see the emergence of a golden generation. We saw it in the years following World War II. And we will once again from the ashes of the coronavirus pandemic. You all are poised to be a part of the next golden generation.

What will set you apart is not your knowledge or your skills or your passions – although all of those are critical. It is your empathy and your recognition of the humanity in each individual person that distinguishes you from previous generations.

You all have gone through one of the most calamitous events to have taken place in our world in a hundred years. This was a crisis without a visible enemy and in which there was massive amounts of suffering. In the way that wars can tear us apart, you have helped ensure that this crisis can bind us together.

My pride in each of you reached new heights during the pandemic. The way you all demonstrated resilience and tenacity in the face of such challenging circumstances has been nothing short of remarkable. But it wasn’t just your ability to adapt to remote learning that made me proud. It was the way you continued to demonstrate a devotion to truth and service and how you became impassioned and brilliant advocates for social justice that has instilled me with supreme confidence for the future trajectory of our University, our community, our country and our world.

History indicates that a crisis often breeds greatness. But there is more than just past precedent that gives us reason to believe in your generation’s ability to bring forward much needed change.

Indeed, society right now appears to be ripe for changing. Amidst the suffering and sorrow of the pandemic, there have also been signs of progress. Trees that were planted long ago and soil that continues to be tilled and cared for are finally beginning to bear fruit.

Of course, the death of George Floyd is a tragedy. Social change should never require tragedy as a catalyst. And yet, the guility verdict of Derek Chauvin is a sign of progress and a victory for equality, for justice and for truth.

Throughout the trial, we saw the elevation of Black voices that spoke sorrow as well as truth and were received with compassion and acceptance. We saw the willingness of law enforcement officers to prioritize the lives of the people they are sworn to protect rather than the indefensible actions of one with whom they shared a uniform. We saw representatives in statehouses across the country demonstrate a willingness to reimagine the role of police in their communities.

Naturally, we will ask ourselves what the George Floyd trial means. But I believe that this is the wrong question. The verdict is not a mirror reflecting the state of our society. It is not a litmus test. The meaning of the George Floyd trial is what we will make of it in the weeks, months and years to come. It is a single brick laid in a foundation for what could become a new order of society.

Class of 2020 and 2021, you are the bricklayers and the architects of this new society. It is up to you to draw up the blueprints and secure this new foundation by upholding and promoting values of diversity and representation, equality and justice, truth and service. 

And let us not forget, that this construction is underway with one of our own in the White House.

Howard alumna Kamala Harris’ election as the vice president of the United States is the surest sign yet that progress is being made. Of course, signs can be misread; our country could abruptly change course and opt for a less progressive path. But progress is not merely subject to the winds of fate. Progress is a result of our ability to push and pull our society in the right direction.

Harris’ ascendence is a powerful symbol of the progress our country has made. To be sure, that progress has been inconsistent, and our country is far from perfect. But we would be remiss to overlook the significance of what Harris’ inauguration represents. That a Black woman can rise to hold the second most powerful office in the entire country, especially in the midst of continuing inequality, injustice and intolerance, is a decisive testament to our country’s values and its future trajectory. Yes, we have more work to do to bring about greater equality, justice and tolerance and to ensure that our country is indeed moving forward on the right and righteous path. But her election is a reminder of the great American potential should we all continue to dedicate ourselves toward realizing a better society.

If there is one area where Howard graduates excel it is in transforming the historical into the commonplace. Yes, Kamala Harris’ election was historic, ceiling-shattering, trailblazing, earth-shaking. But she made history, shattered those ceilings, blazed those trails and shook the earth so that others may more easily rise to her level and even eclipse her accomplishments.

Today’s speaker, Mr. Stevenson, has won reversals, relief or release from prison for over 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row and won relief for hundreds of others wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced. He has initiated major new anti-poverty and anti-discrimination efforts that challenge inequality in America. He has done tremendous work, but I’m sure he will admit, there is much more that needs to be done and that he is expecting you all to do.

The Class of 2020 and 2021, you all may now stand on the shoulders of Vice President Harris and Mr. Stevenson and many others. Stand on their shoulders so that you may aim higher than any generation ever has before and reach farther than even they could have imagined.

It is our distinct duty to build a society where the dreams of one generation become the reality of the next. It is your duty to make the aspirations of previous generations come true, and to dream up even grander and more audatious hopes that future generations will have to work to achieve.

Once again, congratulations to the Class of 2021 and the Class of 2020. Thank you all for your hard work.

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Education, Social Justice and Speeches