Last Updated June 20, 2008

Spring 1999 Commencement

American University
School of Public Affairs and Kogod College of Business Administration
Commencement Address
Congressman John Lewis
May 16, 2000

President Ladner, members of the Board of Trustees, members of the faculty, distinguished guests, parents, family, and friends and to the class of 1999. I am honored and delighted to be with you on this very important occasion. To each and every one of you receiving a degree today--- congratulations.

I know too well the long, hard road that is now behind you. Because you have completed this assignment in your life, you realize the value of dreaming dreams and seeing them realized. This is your day. Enjoy it. Take a deep, long breath. And tomorrow roll up your sleeves, because the world is waiting for talented men and women to lead it to a better place.

As leaders of the 21st Century, you should keep in mind the words of Horace Mann, the father of modern education in America. He said, “We should be ashamed to die, ashamed to leave this world, until we have made some contribution to humanity.”

So I say to you today, now is your time to make your contribution to humanity. And now, through your leadership, you must build an all-inclusive world community based on simple justice, an all-encompassing community that values the dignity of every individual---what I like to call the Beloved Community.

Consider the two words: “Beloved” means not hateful, not violent, not uncaring, not unkind. And “Community” means not separated, not polarized, not locked in struggle.

The most pressing challenge in our society today is defined by methods we use to defend the dignity of humankind. Too often we are stuck in the trappings of a comfortable life. If you want a better society, complaining will get you and us nowhere. You cannot wait for someone else to do it. You cannot wait for the government to do it. Through your own efforts, through action, through creativity and a vision, you must make our society a better place.

As a young child of the South, my early years were spent in rural Alabama. My parents were sharecroppers. In my early childhood, I saw and experienced the dehumanizing role of blacks in the southern system of race and class. Here was oppression at its worst in the 20th Century, but I was fortunate to see, also in the South---the birth of the modern day civil rights movement. As a young child, I tasted the bitter fruits of racism. The world was divided in two, one black and the other white. I saw those signs that said “white men,” “colored men,” “white women,” “colored women,” “white waiting,” and “colored waiting.”

35 years ago this summer, another generation of young people, another generation of young students, men and women, black and white, had the courage, had the capacity, had the ability to put themselves in the way---they were able to forget about their own circumstances and get involved in the circumstances of others. Because of what another generation of students did, you have a legacy to uphold.

At 24, I was a young civil rights worker with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee when I traveled to Mississippi to help organize the Freedom Summer of 1964.
I went to Mississippi because of the systematic of the poor blacks in the Mississippi delta. Thirty five years ago, it was almost impossible for most people of color living in the eleven states of the Confederacy to register to vote. In 1964, the state of Mississippi had a black voting age population of more than 450,000 blacks, but only 18,000 were registered to vote. In one county in Alabama, Lowndes County, 80% of the residents were African American and there was not one single African American registered to vote.

We began organizing in Mississippi with one simple mission: to register as many black voters as possible. It was a great task, but our passion for equality was even greater. As the head of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, it was my job to travel throughout the country and recruit students, Black and white to come to Mississippi. Our plea for help was very simple: “Come let us build a new world together.” And more than one thousand students came to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 to become a part of what I like to call a non-violent revolution.

We knew our mission would not be without risk. In 1964, the state of Mississippi was a very dangerous place for those of us who believed that everyone should have the right to vote. But our faith in the principles of democracy overshadowed our fear of going into the heart of Mississippi.

I will not forget the summer of 1964 for as long as I live. Students arrived from all over the country to work in the freedom Schools where people were taught to pass the literacy tests. They came to help people register to vote, to help open the democratic process. There was a spirit of excitement, a spirit of hope and a sense we could bring about change.

Freedom did not come without a heavy cost. Less than a month after we arrived, three civil rights workers, three young men---Andy Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, white, Jewish...and James Chaney, black---disappeared. We did not know what to think. We hoped for the best, but feared for the worst.

Two days later, the car of these three young workers was found, burned, in a swamp. It was more than six weeks before their bodies were discovered. These three young men had been arrested, taken to jail, then later that night taken out of jail by the sheriff, turned over to the Klan. Then beaten, shot and killed.

I tell this story for civil rights had been a long, hard road, littered by the battered and broken bodies of countless men and women who paid the ultimate price for a precious right, the right to vote.

For those of us in the movement, we learned early that our struggle was not for a month, a season, or a year, but the struggle of a lifetime. This is what it took to build the “Beloved Community.”

This community---this Beloved Community---is still our vision as we enter the 21st Century. The greatest lesson of my life in the civil rights movement come from working with others and striving for the common good with people of every race, every class, every religion and every station in life. We were a circle of trust, a coalition of conscience, a band of brothers and sisters. Above all else we were unified in our purpose: to end the evil system of segregation.

Robert F. Kennedy once said: “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

As leaders of the 21st Century, you can move our society forward by standing up for what you deeply believe. I often wonder why young people today are so quiet.

Whatever it is that you care about---health care, education, the environment, working conditions, civil right and human rights---pick your cause and make your contribution. You have an obligation, a mission and a mandate to do your part.

You have a mandate from the Spirit of History to follow in the footsteps of those brave and courageous men and women who fought to make a difference.

You have a mandate from the three young men who gave their lives in the red clay of Mississippi. Andy Goodman, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner did not die in Europe. They did not die in Asia. Or in Central America. Or in the Middle east. They died right here in the American South. They did not die in vain. As a nation and as a people, we stand on the shoulders of these martyrs of the movement. Now it is your turn to lead. It is your turn to build the Beloved Community.

This morning, you join the ranks of the new leadership. You are the last graduates of the 20th Century. So you must help to build a new America and a better world for the next century. Our society needs you. It needs your talents, your knowledge, your creativity and your passion. Together we will help humankind to evolve to a higher level. Together we can lay down the tools and instruments of war and violence. And together we can come to the point where we study war no more. And you must say to the world, non-violence is the more excellent way.

As you go into the world, obey the dictates of your conscience and the compass of your heart. Prepare for the long haul and the long struggle. The journey through life is difficult, but it is more meaningful when fueled by a vision, a dream, a determination to make life better for someone other than yourself. I know you will do well----graduates of the American University class of 1999----but you must also do good.

This morning, let me close with a story. One day while growing up outside of troy, Alabama, I visited the home of an aunt of mine...Aunt Seneva. Aunt Seneva lived in what we called a shotgun house. Most of you don’t know what a shotgun house is. A shotgun house is a house where you can fire a gun through the front door and the bullet would come out the back door. Her house had a tin roof.

We were out in the yard playing---my sisters and brothers and a few of my first cousins. There were about 12 or 15 of us. Suddenly, an unbelievable storm came with strong winds blowing, the thunder rolling and the lightning flashing. My aunt suggested that we should all come into this house. And we all went inside. She told us to hold hands. And we did as we were told. I could tell my aunt was terrified. She started crying. She thought this house was going to blow away, and we all started crying.

We were fifteen children walking with the wind.

My friends, the storm may come. The winds may blow. The thunder may roll. The lightning may flash. And rain may beat down on this old house we call America. Call it American House. Call it the World House. But we must never, ever leave the house. All of us must stay together and walk hand in hand. I’ve said in recent days, maybe just maybe our forefather and foremothers all came to this land in different ships, but we are all in the same boat now. During the last half of this century, we have joined hands and walked from Montgomery to Birmingham to Selma to Nashville to Atlanta to Washington, D.C. We have come a great distance, but we still have a distance to go.

As graduates of this great institution, the world knows you are smart and talented. The world expects much of you. You have the power to lead; the power to change the social, economic and political structures around you. You have the power to lead a revolution of values and ideas taking place not just in America but around the globe. If you use that power, if you continue to pursue a standard of excellence in your daily lives, then a new and better world---a Beloved Community---is yours to build. So I say to You---Now is your turn to walk in the wind. Let the Spirit of History be your guide.