you, President Franklin, for that warm introduction. Members
of the board, families of the graduates, faculty, distinguished
guests – it is a true honor and privilege to be with you today.
me start by singling out my fellow recipients of honorary awards
and degrees. Dr. Walter E. Massey, president emeritus of
Morehouse and chairman of the board of Bank of America; Dr.
Benjamin Franklin Payton, who is retiring as president of Tuskegee
University after 28 years at the helm; and Congressman Sanford
Bishop, a veteran of the U.S. Army who has demonstrated untiring
support of our men and women in uniform – especially our
nation’s military families.
are so many others here to thank. Chief among them are all
the family members who have joined us. It is an awesome
sight to behold from this stage: as far as I can tell, at
about 10,000 strong, you outnumber the graduates by twenty to one.
That is a testament to how important you have been on this journey
– to how much your graduates have relied on your network of love
and support these past few years. Brothers and sisters,
mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts, uncles,
cousins, friends – stand up so you can be recognized.
Graduates, give them a round of applause.
finally, to the Class of 2010: Congratulations on this great
know that most of you are thinking one thing at this point:
I hope he keeps this short. Having presided over 39
commencements when I was at Texas A&M, I learned the
importance of brevity on occasions such as this. To
paraphrase President Lincoln, I have no doubt you will little note
nor long remember what is said here.
guess today, as you finish one chapter in your life and move on to
the next, I am supposed to give you some advice on how to succeed.
I could quote the billionaire J. Paul Getty, who offered sage
wisdom on how to get rich. He said, “Rise early, work
late, strike oil.” Or, Alfred Hitchcock, who explained,
“There’s nothing to winning really. That is, if you
happen to be blessed with a keen eye, an agile mind, and no
instead of those messages, my only words of advice for success
today come from two great women. First, opera star Beverly
Sills, who said, “There are no short cuts to any place worth
going.” And second, from Katherine Hepburn, who wrote,
“Life is to be lived. If you have to support yourself, you
had bloody well find some way that is going to be interesting.
And you don’t do that by sitting around wondering about
truth of the matter is that there really are no tricks or
shortcuts – or straight lines. In fact, it’s often those
times when you think you know exactly what you’re doing that a
new opportunity comes along and disrupts all your well-laid plans.
I have a lot of experience with this.
I started college in 1961, I wanted to be a doctor – a career
choice that lasted only until the end of my first semester, when I
received a “D” in calculus. My father called
long-distance to ask about it. I said, “Dad, the ‘D’
was a gift.” Dr. Franklin tells me I’m in good company:
while here, Martin Luther King Jr. got more “C”s than
there may be no straight paths in life, you will nonetheless need
to have some anchor points – a set of inner values or a higher
purpose to guide you. Here at Morehouse, you have discovered
those. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, you have learned about the
storied history of this great institution. From mayors,
congressmen, and civil-rights leaders to filmmakers and titans of
industry, Morehouse men are making an impact on their communities
– locally, nationally, and globally. I would note here
that this is the first class to graduate Hopps Defense Research
Scholars – I know recipients of this prestigious distinction
will make a valuable contribution to our nation in the years to
come. President Franklin had it right when he said that
Morehouse “cannot be reduced to words or data” since you are,
after all, following in the footsteps of “Mays and Martin and
of the classroom you have also excelled in your endeavors.
Last weekend, your golf team won the Minority Collegiate Golf
Championship, and the Flying Maroon Tigers won the South Region
track-and-field championship as well as their fifth league title
in a row, which raises the question: do you ever plan on
giving another school a chance? Members of your class helped
elect a United States president; established a charter school
based on the ’House’s Renaissance skills; worked to alleviate
the suffering of the Haitian people in their hour of need; and
maybe even found time to stomp the Yard or snap and drive with the
House of Funk. I’ll bet that is the first time a U.S.
defense secretary has ever said that.
all of this, you have learned and lived values this school prides
itself on: caring beyond self, devotion to one’s community
and fellow citizens, and preparedness to serve – all fundamental
to our democracy and this great experiment we call the United
States of America.
is directly related to the subject I want to speak to you about
briefly: the obligation of service and citizenship in our
hear a lot in the United States about our rights as citizens, but
what we don’t hear enough about from our political leaders,
commentators, and editorial writers are our responsibilities as
citizens. I know you are familiar with what Benjamin Mays
said on the topic of service: “It is not what you keep, but what
you give that makes you happy. We make our living by what we
get. We make our life by what we give.”
recent years, I have been blessed to work closely with two
Morehouse men who have chosen a life of service. Both are
here today. Dr. Rodney McClendon, class of 1990, crossed
this stage 20 years ago this month. He was my chief of
staff, confidante, counselor, and friend when I was president of
Texas A&M. As a senior executive at the University of
North Texas, he is a rising star in that university system.
Jeh Johnson, class of ’79, is one of the nation’s preeminent
lawyers. Last year, he left Wall Street to return to the
Department of Defense as the general counsel. In that role,
he is lead lawyer for the department and responsible for
overseeing more than 10,000 lawyers dealing with some of the
nation’s most complex legal issues.
sure both of these great Morehouse men can attest to the fact that
public life has its share of downsides: whether it’s the
criticism that comes from being in the public eye or the sometimes
comically inefficient reality of our political system.
there is another aspect to public service about which Americans
hear very little: the idealism, the joy, the satisfaction,
and the fulfillment. My own views have been formed by what I
have seen and experienced since entering government 44 years ago
this summer and especially in the last few years at the Defense
Department. Every day, I have the great honor of interacting
with men and women who have volunteered to serve our nation during
a time of war – setting aside their dreams to protect yours;
putting the security of their countrymen above their own lives.
In just a few minutes, I will have the great honor of
commissioning seven new officers in the United States Navy and Air
Force who join an inspiring roster of young Americans who have
answered their country’s call.
of other Americans have chosen careers in civic service:
policemen; firemen; teachers; nurses; elected and appointed local,
state, and national officials; and many, many others.
in an unguarded moment, you asked the public servants I have known
what their motivation was you’d learn that – no matter how
outwardly tough or jaded – they mostly were, and are, in their
heart of hearts, romantics and idealists. And optimists.
You see, we who have taken this path actually believe we can make
a difference, that we can change the lives of others for the
better, that we can make a positive difference in the life of our
how much has occurred during my lifetime. I grew up in
Wichita, Kansas, in the 1940s and ’50s – not exactly a part of
the country on the cutting edge of social change at that time.
But, just a couple hours away, in Topeka, there was a girl almost
my exact age named Linda Brown. In 1951, when she was in
third grade, her father tried to enroll her in the all-white
school just down the road. After being denied, Reverend
Oliver Brown sued the local board of education in a case that came
to be known as Brown v. Board. A few years later,
it was another son of Kansas, Dwight Eisenhower, who sent federal
troops to Little Rock to enforce that Supreme Court decision –
and tear down once and for all the pernicious belief that a
two-tiered society could ever be separate but equal.
think about that multiple times a week, when I cross the Potomac
river to visit the White House – a building originally
constructed in part with slave labor – and serve at the pleasure
of our nation’s 44th president, the first African
American commander in chief. I can tell you it is an
incredible and humbling experience – made possible only because
millions of ordinary citizens fought for generations to uphold a
truth we hold to be self evident: that all men truly are
doubt, ours is an imperfect nation that has been and will always
be a work in progress. And so it falls to your generation to
ensure that we continue along the path of progress. As
President Obama has said, you must “put your foot firmly into
the current of history.”
founders of Morehouse understood that, and its subsequent leaders
never flagged in their determination to elevate this college from
its humble beginnings in the basement of a non-descript Baptist
church to the magisterial campus you know so well – the
heartbeat of one of America’s great cities. They created
out of a limited effort to educate recently freed slaves a
premiere institution of higher education – a cauldron in which
community and national leaders are forged.
in front of me – and behind all of you – is Graves Hall.
When the cornerstone of that building was laid more than 120 years
ago, the renowned reverend, Dr. C. T. Walker, said: “Let
the men who go from these walls prepared for high work publish the
fame of this institution . . . by their fixedness of purpose and
their earnest desire to bless fallen humanity and write their name
in bright letters in the temple of fame.”
entered this place as men of Morehouse – and, very shortly, you
will become Morehouse men. Do not ever forget what that
means. Do not forget the legacy you are charged with
upholding. Just look around you. We gather within
shouting distance of buildings named after towering figures who
made your presence possible: White, Robert, Graves, Kilgore,
Hope, Archer, Sale, Douglas, Dubois, King. And you are about
to graduate under the watchful eyes of Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays,
whose likeness appropriately stands in our midst.
bodies of these men may have passed from this world, but their
spirits remain in this place. And they remain in each and
every one of you. Forever more, they will ask and demand
that you live a life of honor and character and service – that
you publish the fame of this great institution by your devotion to
causes larger than yourself.
will close with a quote from President John Adams, from a letter
he sent to one of his sons on this very subject. He wrote:
“Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody or
other. If wise men decline it, others will not; if honest
men refuse it, others will not.” And, I would add, if
Morehouse men turn away, others will not.
so I ask you, Morehouse College Class of 2010, will the wise and
honest among you come help us serve the American people?
you, congratulations, and good luck.