6 June 2019, Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
This speech became a news story because Robert F Smith pledged to pay off the student debts of every member of the Class of 2019 at Morehouse, estimated at $40 million.
Classmates. Class of 2019. You look beautiful. You look beautiful.
First of all, President Thomas, Board of Trustees, Faculty Staff and Morehouse Alumni, the extraordinary Angela Bassett, the distinguished Professor Dr. Edmund Gordon, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, family and friends, and most of all to my classmates, congratulations.
Earning a college degree is one of the most impressive and greatest accomplishments of life. But success as many parents and as hard as each of you have worked and have achieved today you’ve had a lot of help along the way. We are all the product of a community, a village, a team and many of those who’ve made contributions for you to arrive at this very moment today are with us.
So first and foremost, I’m going to ask you one more time you’re going to stand up. You’re going to turn around and you’re going to celebrate all these people — our community, our family who are here to celebrate you.
All right. Come on sit down class. We got a lot — we got a long way to go. So I want to make sure you got some stretching in.
So standing here before you is one of the great honors of my life. I’m so proud to share it with you, with my mother Dr. Sylvia Smith, a lifelong educator and the greatest role model of my life who is here with me today.
This is a special week for us. We celebrate three graduations this week. My niece is graduating from my alma mater Cornell. My daughter’s graduating from high school and headed off to Barnard this fall. My eldest Zoe is graduating from NYU with honors this week. She is a fifth generation in my family to graduate from college and the fourth to graduate with honors.
So first of all, I want to thank the Morehouse administration for timing this perfectly so I could attend all of those graduation ceremonies.
Morehouse was built to demand excellence and spur the advancement and development of African-American men. I’ve always been drawn to its rich history and I’m optimistic for its bright future. The brothers from Morehouse I’ve met over these years, I’ve revered; they understand the power of education, the responsibility that comes with it.
Willie Woods, Chairman of the Board, he and I have been friends for over 20 years, and I want to thank Chairman Woods for assembling a great class and a great organization of administrators and faculty to help you young men go forward.
In our shared history as a people and as a country, the Morehouse campus is a special place. The path you walked along Brown Street this morning to reach this commencement ceremony was paved by men of intellect and character and determination. These men understood that when Dr. King said “The arc of the moral universe bends towards justice”, he wasn’t saying it bends on its own accord. It bends because we choose to put our shoulders into it together and push.
The degree you earn today is one of the most elite credentials that America has to offer. But I don’t want you to think about it as a document that hangs on the wall or reflects the accomplishments you’ve made up to now. That degree is a contract. It’s a social contract. It calls on you to devote your talents and energies to honoring those legends on whom shoulders both you and I stand.
Lord knows you’re graduating into a complex world. Think about we faced in the last few years of your time here at Morehouse. We’ve seen the rise of Black Lives Matter lending voice to critical issues that have been ignored by too many for too long. We’ve seen the Me Too movement shining a spotlight on how far we still have to go to achieve real gender equality.
We’ve also seen the unapologetic public airing of hate doctrines by various groups. We’ve seen the implications of climate change become impossible to ignore and become even more severe. And our connected world has now to grapple with the new questions about secrecy, privacy, the role of intelligent machines in our work and in our lives.
And we witnessed the very foundation of our political system shaken by the blurring of the sacred line between fact and fiction, right and wrong. Yes, this is an uncertain hour for our democracy and our fragile world order but uncertainty is nothing new for our community.
Like many of yours, my family has been in these United States for eight or nine generations. We have nourished the soil with our blood. We’ve sown the land with our sweat. We protected this country with our bodies, contributed to the physical, cultural and intellectual fabric of this country with our minds and our talent. And yet, I’m the first generation in my family to have secured all my rights as an American citizen.
Think about it. 1865 was the first time most African-American families had a hint of access to the greatest until now wealth generating platform in America, that’s land. The Freedmen’s Bureau was supposed to deliver 850,000 acres of land to these formerly enslaved and then that program was cancelled and replaced by the Freedman’s Savings Bank which was then looted. Essentially that recompense was reneged upon.
We didn’t have broad access to the Homestead Act or the Southern Homestead Act where indeed 10% of America’s land was essentially given away for less the filing fee. And it was until 1868 after the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment that my family actually had the birthright to be American citizens.
Then when American decided to create a social safety net — Social Security in 1935, they created the Social Security program. Yet that program had one exclusion — two categories of people: maids and farmworkers which effectively denied benefits to 66% of African Americans and 80% of Southern African Americans.
It was until 1954 that my family had a right to equal education under the protection of the law with Brown versus Board of Education. And while the Fifteenth Amendment gave my family to right to vote, the men at least, starting in 1890 those rights were rolled back in the south and remained suppressed until the passage of the Voter Rights Act of 1965.
Even today more than half a century after that, the struggle still continues to ensure true integrity at the ballot box. All these landmark extensions of our rights and subsequent retrenchments set the stage for new policy of forced desegregation, utilizing school busing that basically went in effect when I reached the first grade in my hometown of Denver, Colorado.
Our family lived in Northeast Denver, and back then, Denver, like most American cities, remained extremely divided by race, both politically and geographically. In my community, my neighbors were mostly educated, proud, hardworking and ambitious. They were dentists, teachers, politicians, lawyers, Pullman porters, contractors, small business owners and pharmacists. They were focused on serving the African-American community and providing a safe and nurturing environment for the kids in our neighborhood.
They were on the front lines of the civil rights movement. We were sacrificing our sons to the Vietnam War. They mourned the death of a King, two Kennedys and an X. And despite all they gave they had yet to achieve the fullness of the American dream. But they continued to believe that it was only a matter of time and if not for them, then surely for their children.
So I was among a small number of kids from my neighborhood who were bused across town to a high-performing, predominantly white school in Southeast Denver. Every morning we loaded up on Bus Number 13 — I’ll never forget it – that was taken over to Carson Elementary School.
That policy of busing only lasted to my fifth-grade year when intense protests and political pressure brought the end to forced busing. But those five years dramatically changed my life.
The teachers of Carson were extraordinary. They embraced me, challenged me to think critically and start moving towards my full potential. In turn, I came to realize at a young age that the white kids, the black kids, the Jewish kid and that one Asian kid were pretty much all the same. It wasn’t just a school itself; it was a community that I lived in that embraced and supported all that we were doing.
Since most of the parents of my neighborhood were working, a whole bunch of us walked over to Mrs. Brown’s house every day after school and stayed there until our parents got home from work. Mrs. Brown was incredible. She kept us safe, made sure we did our homework the right way, gave us nutritious snacks and taught us about responsibility.
Because her house was filled with children of all ages, I had suddenly older kids all around me who acted as role models, who were studying hard and believed in themselves. Mrs. Brown also happened to be married to the first black lieutenant governor of our state. So we saw the possibilities first-hand.
Amazingly almost every single student on Bus Number 13 went on to become a profession. I’m still in touch with many of them as they make up the bedrock of our community today. They’re elected officials, doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, professors, community organizers and business leaders — an incredible concentration of black men and black women from the same working-class neighborhood.
Yet when I looked at the extended community that I lived in and those kids who didn’t get a spot on Bus Number 13, their success rate was far lower, and the connection is inescapable. Everything about my life changed because of those few short years but the window closed for others just as fast as it opened for me. And that’s the story of the black experience in America.
Getting a fleeting glimpse of opportunity and success just before the window is slammed shut. The cycle of resistance to oppression followed by legislation, followed by the weakening of that legislation, followed by more oppression and more resistance has affected and afflicted every single generation. And even as we’ve seen some of the major barriers come crashing down in recent years, we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we didn’t acknowledge just how many of these injustices still persist.
Where you live shouldn’t determine where you get it whether or not you get educated. Where you go to school shouldn’t determine whether you get textbooks. The opportunity to access — the opportunity for access should be determined only by the fierceness of your intellect and the courage and your creativity, and should be fueled by the grit that allows you to overcome expectations that weren’t set high enough.
We’ve seen remarkable breakthroughs in medical research, yet race-based disparities in health outcomes still exist. You’re 41% more likely to die of breast cancer if you’re an African-American woman in America than if you were white. You’re 2.3 times more likely to die of prostate cancer for an African-American man than if you were white.
If you are African American, you’re more likely to be stopped by the police, more likely to be issued a ticket when you’re stopped, more likely to be threatened with force than when you were white. That’s our reality. This is the world you’re inheriting.
Now I’m telling you things as I don’t want you to think that I’m bitter, nor do I want you to be bitter. I call upon you to make things better. Because the great lesson of my life is that despite the challenges we face, America is truly an extraordinary country and our world is getting smaller by the day and you are equipped with every tool to make it your own.
Today for the first time in human history, success requires no prerequisite of wealth or capital, no ownership of land or natural resources or people. Today success can be created solely through the power of one’s mind, ideas encouraged. Intellectual capital can be cultivated, monetized and instantaneously distributed across the globe.
Intellectual capital has become the new currency of business and finance, and the promise of brain power to move people from poverty to prosperity in one generation has never been more possible. Technology, the world that I live in, is creating a whole new set of on-ramps to the 21st century economy and together we will help assure that the African-American community will acquire the tech skills and be the beneficiaries in a sector that is being automated.
Black men understand that securing the bag just is the beginning, that success is only real if our community is protected, our potential is realized, and if our most valuable assets, our people, find strength in owning the businesses that provide economic stability in our community.
This is your moment, graduates. Between doubt and destiny is action. Between our community and the American dream is leadership. That’s your leadership, that’s your destiny.
This doesn’t mean ignoring injustice; it means using your strength to write order. And when you are confronted with racism, listen to the words of Guy Johnson, the son of Maya Angelou who once wrote: “Racism was like gravity. You got to just keep pushing again against it without spending too much time thinking about it.”
SO HOW DO YOU SEIZE YOUR AMERICAN DREAM?
Let me get specific and give you a few rules to live by because I understand that once you cross a stage, we may not be able to tell you much.
RULE 1: NOTHING REPLACES ACTUALLY DOING THE WORK
Rule number one: You need to know that nothing replaces actually doing the work.
Whenever young person tells me they aspire to be an entrepreneur, the first question I ask him is why. For many they think it’s a great way to get rich quick. I’m going to write an app, I’m going to build a company, make a few million dollars before I’m 25. Look that can happen but frankly that’s awfully rare.
The usual scenario is that successful entrepreneurs spend endless hours, days, years, toiling away for little time, little pay and zero glamor. And in all honesty, that’s where the joy of success actually resides.
Before I ever got into private equity, I was a chemical engineer. And I spent pretty much every waking hour in windowless labs during the work that helped me become an expert in my field. It was only after I put in the time to develop this expertise and the discipline of the scientific process that I was able to apply my knowledge beyond the lab.
Greatness is born out of the grind, so embrace the grind. A thoughtful and intentional approach to the grind will help you become an expert in your craft.
When I meet a black man or woman who’s at the top of their field, I see the highest form of execution. That’s no accident. There’s a good chance it took that black leader a whole lot more grinding to get them where they are today. I look at the current and former black CEOs who inspired my life. I have to tell you they blow me away every time I meet with them. People like Bernard Tyson, Ken Frazier, Ken Chenault, Dick Parsons, Ursula Burns and the late Barry Rand.
They may not have attended Morehouse but they had the Morehouse spirit. They knew that being the best meant grinding every single day. It means putting in the 10,000 hours necessary to become a master of your craft and I’ll tell you one of the great leaders of our time Muhammad Ali once said:
“I hated every minute of training but I thought to myself suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”
So grind it out and live your life as a champion.
RULE 2: TAKE THOUGHTFUL RISKS
My next rule is to take thoughtful risks. My granddad took a particular interest in my career. He couldn’t have been prouder when I had a stable job at Kraft General Foods as an engineer, because for him they had that kind of job security of my age was a dream come true.
When I was — when I told him I was thinking about leaving to go to grad school, he frankly was worried. Then you can imagine how worried he became so many years later when I told him I was leaving Goldman Sachs. I said “I’m going to start my own private equity firm, granddad, to focus on enterprise software.”
He thought I’d gone crazy. But I respected my granddad and his wisdom and his thoughtfulness and frankly his protectiveness over me. But I’d done my homework, I calculated the risks and I importantly knew that I was going to invest in one of the most important things and gather the fundamental design point of the American dream and that was to be a business owner.
So I decided with confidence I was going to make a one big bet on the asset that I knew best: myself. There are always reasons to be risk averse. As you know graduating from Morehouse can make you risk-averse. The path that you’re on, if you just take a conservative path, your outcomes and choices would probably be pretty good. But that doesn’t mean that you should gamble with your career or couriering from job to job frankly because it looks — the grass always looks a little greener; it does mean that you should evaluate your options.
You should be taking business and career risks, do the analysis and most importantly trust your instincts. When you bet on yourself, that’s likely a good bet.
RULE 3: BE INTENTIONAL ABOUT THE WORDS YOU CHOOSE
My third rule is always be intentional about the words you choose.
I know Morehouse has taught you all that what you say matters and what you say carries with it enormous power. Be intentional about the words you speak, how you define yourself, what you call each other, the people you spend time with and the love you create. This all matters immensely, it will define you.
RULE 4: YOU ARE ENOUGH
My fourth rule, which is actually my favorite, is to always know that you are enough. I mentioned that before going to investment banking at Goldman Sachs, I was working as an engineer at Kraft General Foods. One day I was at a meeting with the number of my department heads going through our divisional strategy and sitting around a conference table lining up what were the most important strategic imperatives.
When I looked at those six initiatives, I was leading five of them. I was half the age of everybody in that room and I know making a third of everybody in that room. And I said to myself I’m either doing something really right or really wrong. And frankly it was a little bit of both.
So that became a lesson to me in realizing my worth and self-worth. It isn’t just about salary, although that does matter. It’s about demanding respect from others and from yourself. A realization and respect for all the skills and talents you bring to the table. When you have confidence in your own worth, you’ll become the one to raise your hand for that next assignment and it may be hard. That made me putting in time on nights and weekends and it also means you’ll be gaining incremental skills and experiences that enhance your craftsmanship and earn your respect through your body of work.
Let the quality of your work products speak of your capabilities. Know that you are only bound by the limits of your own conviction because you are Morehouse man. There is no room on this earth you can’t enter without your head held high. You will encounter people in your life, as I have, who will want to make you feel like you don’t belong. But when you respect your own body of work, that’s all the respect you need.
In the words of the great Quincy Jones and Ray Charles:
“Not one drop of my self-worth depends on your acceptance of me.”
You are enough.
RULE 5: WE ALL HAVE THE RESPONSIBILITY TO LIBERATE OTHERS
The fifth and final lesson for you all today is as follows. We all have the responsibility to liberate others so that they can become their best selves in human rights, the arts and business and in life. The fact is as the next generation of African-American leaders, you don’t want to just be on the bus. You want to own it, you want to drive it and you want to pick up as many people along the way as you can.
Because I will tell you more than the money, the awards, the recognition, and the titles, we will all be measured by how much we contribute to the success of the people around us. How many people will you get on your Bus Number 13?
We need you to become the elected leaders who step up and fix the laws that engender discrimination and set a tone of respect in our public discourse. We need you to become the C-suite executives who change corporate culture, build sustainable business models and make diversity and inclusion a core and unshakeable value.
We need you to become the entrepreneurs who will innovate inclusively, expand wages for all Americans and lower the unemployment rate in our communities. We need you to be the educators who set the standards and demand the resources to deliver on those standards and inspire the next generation and we need you to invest the real estate and businesses in our communities and create value for all of us in those communities.
No matter what profession you choose, each of you must become a community builder. No matter how far you travel you can’t ever forget where you came from. You’re responsible for building strong safe places where our young brothers and sisters can raise children and grow in confidence. Watch and learn from positive role models and they believe that they too are entitled to the American Dream.
You men of Morehouse are already doing this. I know your own student government, in fact, send students on a bus to underserved communities to actually empower young black men and women to seize their own narrative and find their own power in their own voice. This is exactly the kind of leadership I’m talking about.
Remember that building a community doesn’t always have to be about sweeping change either but it does have to be intentional. You just can’t be a role model sometimes.
I’m cognizant of the fact that every time I’m in public, people are observing my actions. The same goes for you. Building community can’t be insular. The world has never been smaller but we need to make and help our communities think bigger.
I’ve invested particularly in internship programs because I’ve observed the power of exposing young minds to opportunities that work in their neighborhoods so they can see what they can become.
Help those around you see the beauty of this vast world. Help them believe that they too can capture that dream. And remember community can be anywhere. Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, community was a few blocks around where I grew up. Today we — you can create communities of people all around the world.
Merging the physical and digital communities will be one of the great opportunities that you have and you will have in these years going forward. And finally, don’t forget that communities thrive in the smallest of gestures. Be the first to congratulate a friend on their new job. Buy their new product posted on social media and tell everybody how great it is and be the first to console them when they face adversity.
Treat all people with dignity even if you can’t see how they’re going to help you. And most important of all whatever it takes, never ever forget to call your mother. And I do mean call, don’t text. Texts don’t count.
So speaking of mothers, let me allow me a point of personal privilege to end with a story that speaks volumes about mine.
Summer 1963, when I was just 9 months old, my mother picked me and my brother up and hauled 1700 miles away from Denver to Washington DC so we could be there for a Morehouse Man speech. My mother knew that her boys were too young to remember that speech but she believed that the history that we witnessed that day would forever resonate and become part of the men that we would one day become.
My mom was right as usual. I still feel that day in my bones and it echoes around us here at Morehouse. Decades after that cross-country trip I had the privilege to take my granddad to the opposite side of the National Mall to celebrate the inauguration of the first African-American President.
As we sat in that audience in that cold morning, he pointed to a window just behind the flag in the Capitol Building, he said, “You know grandson, when I was a teenager I used to work in that room right there. It’s the Senate Lounge, I used to serve coffee and tea and take hats and coats for the Senators.” He said “I recall looking out that window during Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration.” He said “Son, I did not see one black face in the crowd that day.” He said “So here we are, you and I watching this.” He said “Grandson, you can see how America can change when people have the will to make a change.”
The beautiful symmetry of our return to the nation’s capital under such different circumstances were not lost on us. The poetry of time and soul that Lincoln called the mystic chords of memory resonated in both of our hearts. You cannot be a witness to history as I have or walk the halls of Morehouse as you have without profound respect for the unsung everyday heroes who generation after generation little by little nudged, shoved and ultimately bent that arc of the moral universe a little closer to justice.
This is a history and the heritage you inherit. This is a responsibility that now lies upon your broad shoulders. True wealth comes from contributing to the liberation of people and the liberation of communities we come from depends upon the grit and the determination and the greatness inside of you, using your skills and your knowledge and your instincts to serve to change the world in only the way that you can.
You great Morehouse men are bound again only by your limits of your own convictions and creativity. You have the power within to be great, be you, be unstoppable, be undeniable and accomplish the things that people thought you never would. I’m counting on you to load up your bus and share that journey.
Now let’s not forget what Dr. King said in his final moments in his famous sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church: “I want to be on your right side and on your left side, in love and in justice, in truth and in commitment so that we can make this old world a new world.”
So graduates, look to your right, look to your left. Actually take a moment; stand up. Give each other a hug. I’m going to wait.
Men of Morehouse, you are surrounded by a community of people who have helped you arrive at the sacred place and on this sacred day. On behalf of the eight generations of my family who have been in this country, we’re going to put a little fuel in your bus.
Now I’ve got the Alumni over there, and this is the challenge to you Alumni. This is my class, 2019.
And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans.
Now I know my class will make sure they pay this forward, and I want my class to look at these alumnus, these beautiful Morehouse brothers and let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity going forward.
Because we are enough to take care of our own community. We are enough to ensure we have all the opportunities of the American Dream and we will show it to each other through our actions and through our words and through our deeds.
So Class of 2019, may the Sun always shine upon you. May the wind always be at your back. And may God always hold you in the cradle of her hand.