Last Updated June 20, 2008

2007 Commencement

Commencement Address
120th Commencement
American University Washington College of Law
Senator Mary Landrieu from Lousiana.
May 20, 2007
[as delivered]

Thank you, I am so honored today with this degree.

I'm very honored to be able to say a few words briefly to all those down there this afternoon. To President Kerwin and Dean Grossman, and the distinguished faculty assembled that is truly known not just here in Washington, but around the world; and to these graduates that represent such hope for the future; and to their parents, grandparents, special friends and supporters, thank you all for allowing me to speak with you for just a few moments this afternoon.

The scripture has a favorite part for me and I'm sure shared by many: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. But my personal favorite is, “Blessed are the brief, they shall be invited back.” [laughter] and since this is my first time on campus, and my first time to be here at the law school, I hope to come back many times.

I came early for just a few reasons. One of them was to honor the great founding of this extraordinary university law school. To think that at a time before many dreams for women ever took much shape, that two women founded this university and believed, when they did 100 years ago, that there would be a woman or two more on the Supreme Court. Mussey and Gillette, two extraordinary women in spirit, I find I can still hear this afternoon. The Dean was telling me that one of the first commencement speeches was given by a United States Senator. He showed up to basically say that the idea that they had would never work. So when you all asked me, I really didn't have much of a choice, I had to show up [laughter] as a Senator from Louisiana to say their idea does so serve the world, that the law cannot be just until women are practicing along with men . [applause]

I also want to say thank you to all of you for what you did for New Orleans , a great American city and an international focal point, my hometown. My mother and father had nine of us in 11 years. The oldest of nine were very close in more ways than one, and we all grew up in New Orleans and still call New Orleans home. And out of our six homes that we owned in New Orleans , four of them were completely destroyed. The Landrieu family, along with many families, some here or from New Orleans without connections, have all been through a very unbelievable challenge. To be challenged not just by the worst hurricane to hit this country, Hurricane Katrina, and then four weeks later the third worst storm, Hurricane Rita, which is forgotten. But actually what ruined 80 percent of this city, as many of the graduates will tell you that led groups and delegations down, was the collapse of a federal levee system that should've held and didn't.

And so the city went underwater. Eighty percent of the east bank of our city and surrounding parishes -- you don't hear much about Saint Bernard Parish -- but right south of New Orleans, where 67,000 people lived, last night only 22,000 people slept there. And every home and every church and every synagogue went under water, either 12 to 14 feet high, not because we lived by a beach – there's really no beach much near New Orleans except Lake Pontchartrain – but because the levees that hold back the industrial canal for the great ports so we can ship grain out to the Midwest, and the lake that is a natural lake that borders this beautiful community, the levees collapsed, and literally in a matter of just eight hours the city filled up like a saucer because the government, some time ago forgot that infrastructure isn't for not just building strong minds and bodies which we do here at this university, but building strong infrastructure so that the economy of the greatest nation upon earth can continue to lead and grow.

And then to have the federal government to not recognize the scope of the disaster, which was flooded seven times the size of Manhattan . And that water stayed – it didn't just come and go – but as it gradually settled back down…..[ inaudible ]…. to hold the hand of an old person that had lost, after a lifetime of work and love and commitment, lost everything that they owned. Many homes, of course, were paid for, and if your home is paid for, you don't need to carry all-the-time insurance if you're not in the flood zone.

So I could go on to describe the 330,000 schoolchildren that went to school or left school on Friday, thinking they'd be back to school on Monday and Tuesday, and still, almost two years later, some of them are not back in their school. Or the 81,000 college students, which you all were so gracious to take in. So part of my mission as a Senator, and I hope part of the graduates' missions, is to fight for justice when you see the need. And most certainly that fight to continue to get the government to be more effective, more innovative, more creative, more responsive, more willing to admit its mistakes and more willing to use the power of the government to bring justice to people is something that I do every day in the Senate and what I continue to do.

So I came here today to thank you for what you've done. And so I thank you for wanting to go back down and start an NGO in the city of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast . This is America 's energy coast. We're not sunbathing or building condos, with all due respect to the sunbathers and the condo builders on our coast, but we're hauling 75 percent of the grain that comes out of the Midwest . We live on the largest delta in the mouth of the largest service system in America . The people that were behind those levees that broke were loading the ships that help this economy continue to go, and I'm going do my best in the Senate to get them back in their homes, back in their schools and back in their universities. That's why I got into government. That's why I'm here today.

The second reason I wanted to be here was to challenge all the graduates, and particularly the women, but the men who leave here as well, to think about people that have been inspiring in the toughest of times. And I know you're inspired by your professors; you're inspired by your parents. In your own family you have heroes and heroines. But I want to briefly mention two that have recently come into sharper focus for me.

Ida Wells-Barnett was a young African-American woman when she began to write. She was an extremely powerful journalist. An African-American woman who was born in the late 1800s, married around 1895. She, probably more than any person, without given force of right to vote or any standing in the society of America at the time, sharpened her intellectual skills, her speaking skills, and her communicating skills. Particularly her writing skills, as such an extraordinary writer, that she was able to have probably the greatest influence of any individual to bring an end to the horrible American shame and tragedy of lynching.

I knew about her for many years, and I was a co-sponsor, a lead sponsor of the Apology for the United States Senate to apologize to the country and to the world for not enacting a stronger anti-lynching statute when our law was found wanting. The book that has really inspired me about it is entitled Without Sanctuary . For the lawyers in this room, for those of you that are lawyers now, people find and seek justice in many places. If they can't find it in the law, I suggest they won't be able to find it anywhere. At the time, what many Americans looked for they could not find in our law, but Ida B. Wells and another woman penned and recorded almost all of the lynchings. But what I want to share with you this morning is one small aspect of her life. The fact that she was married did not really occur to me when I read about her when I was younger because I thought her work was so extraordinary, how could she possibly be in love? And not only was she in love, did I find out by reading Karenna Gore Schiff's recent book, Nine Women Who Changed Modern America , but she had four children. So she wrote, her building burned down, her newspaper was threatened, her life was threatened, she was married, and she had four children.

Karenna writes in her book that one night, after taking a few years raising her children and still trying to tell the story of lynching in a way that would stop the horrific practice, her husband suggested to her that she go and record one of the more horrific situations. Sheriff Frank Davis of Cairo , Illinois was being reinstated to become a sheriff again. He was recently set aside because he failed to protect a particular prisoner that was in his prison, an African-American man who was in his prison, the sheriff failed to protect him. So this man was taken out, he was shot 500 times, he was beheaded and then he was burned. And the night before, Ida's husband said, “You should go and write about this case.” She was tired, she said, “I'm laying down with my two-year-old as I usually did to put her to sleep.” She said, “I was just was torn about whether I should go or not. I had four children at home, and my husband, they needed me. Until,” she said in this book, “my eldest, who was eight, tapped me in the middle of the night and said to me, ‘Mother, if you don't go, who will?'” So the next morning, the book reports, she got on the train and she went, and she reported this death, like many, this murder.

Another woman, who I'll mention briefly, Frances Perkins. In this book, that I was recently reading about her, one of my favorite quotes, that she said, “I didn't come here to work for the press” – obviously she was Secretary of Labor, as you all remember – “obviously I didn't come,” she said, “to work for the press. I came here to work for God, for FDR and the millions of forgotten plain, common, working men.” But what struck me about this particular passage was the to-do list that she brought in to Franklin Roosevelt when she was asked or was being considered for the job.

Now, I don't know about people, but I'll wake up every day and make a to-do list and every night I'll look at it and I'll think, “Half of it's not done, I don't know what I'm going to do. I'll just try to do it again tomorrow.” So I like to-do lists, I've had one since I was quite young, and continue that practice.

This was on her to-do list, Frances Perkins: Enact a minimum wage law; abolition of child labor; enact unemployment insurance, and then old age insurance. This woman, as the Secretary of Labor, finished her to-do list.

So I ask you lawyers, when you walk out of here today, what is on your to-do list? What will we say? What will you be proud of? What you have done to contribute to a great body of law and to make sure that the law itself is just? I most certainly know that because you're one of the finest universities in the world, that you have the intelligence to do the work. The question is today: Do you have the heart to discern the work that God has called you to do? Thank you very much.