Remarks at 2013 City College Commencement/Class of 1963 50th Anniversary

May 31, 2013 | Speeches and Testimony

Graduates, my warmest wishes to you, your families, and your professors on this joyous occasion.  Congratulations!  After spending several years listening to teachers talk at you, your reward is to have more people talk at you.  So I’ll be brief.

Fifty years ago, I sat, just like you, waiting for my CCNY diploma.  I was in my best shirt and tie, my mortarboard was square on my head…and, I admit it, I was a little bored.  I didn’t see how sitting through a long ceremony would help me figure out what to do with my life, something I worried that everyone else in my class had figured out, while I didn’t have a clue.  I did feel proud and excited, but also, a little cynical.

But something unusual happened the night of June 12, 1963, in Lewisohn Stadium.  Which is what you would expect when the speaker who rises to address your class is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King was speaking to us less than 24 hours after civil rights activist Medgar Evers had been murdered, shot in the back in his own driveway.  And just one day after Gov. George Wallace stood in a doorway of the University of Alabama to prevent two black students from entering the all-white school.   And, just one night after President Kennedy gave a televised address in support of his civil rights bill.

So Dr. King wasn’t at City College that day to suggest prestigious professions we might enter, or how to achieve personal success, or how our degree would impact our income.  No.  Dr. King was there to tell us what our education was really for.  And none of us who listened to him that day ever forgot it.

We live in a day of great crisis, Dr. King told us.  Our dilemma was that (quote) “we have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live.”  A complete education, he said, bestows not only (quote) “the power of concentration” but also “worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”

This sounds familiar, right?  We experience it all the time.  For example, when the means of receiving information—say, an iPhone—is highly sophisticated, but the information received is a video of a sleeping cat.  What we use, Dr. King said, can’t be allowed to overwhelm what we are.

And equal to what Dr. King said that day was the way he said it.  His complete conviction in the need for moral clarity and action carried to every corner of the stadium through his emotion, his cadence, the timbre of his voice. Dr. King was not—in that moment or ever—a commencement speaker.  He was a nearly biblical voice of justice and outrage.

“As long as acts like this are possible,” he said, referring to Medgar Evers’ murder, “no one in our nation is safe or free.  We must honestly see that the harvest of violence that we are now reaping is due to seeds of apathy planted in the past.”  What’s more, he said, the violence wasn’t just a result of (quote) “the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people,” but “the appalling silence and apathy of the good people.”  And with that line, there was complete silence in the stadium.

So there I sat.  Sweating in my best shirt, Dr. King’s words drilling a hole in my heart.  Word by word, phrase by phrase, my own boredom and my own apathy were held up to me, turned on me.  My classmates and I were confronted by the quiet force of a truth straight from the soul: our apathy was a weapon for others to use.   Forget “what are you going to BE when you grow up?”  The question to us was, “What are you going to DO when you grow up?”  And what are you waiting for?

Two short months later, I heard that challenge again, during Dr. King’s historic speech on the March on Washington.   I heard some of the same words he had said here at City College, including his unforgettable ending: (quote) “With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood….[A]ll of God’s children…will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Can you imagine such a graduation?  Such a sendoff to the world outside of Convent Avenue?

Not surprisingly, that day in June 1963 was an awakening for me.  Not all at once, and maybe not even consciously.  But bit by bit, my malaise began to melt.  I began to focus more deeply on the road ahead.  And the way I made choices started to change.  Was I only doing the expected and the obvious, what might make me LOOK good?  Or was I trying to DO good?  The truth wasn’t always comforting.

But over the years, I began to understand that when I attempted really difficult things because I knew they had at least the potential for real impact, the answers to those questions changed.  Things like writing or teaching or volunteering my time changed how I saw other people, and how I saw myself.   Now, look, I still made some bad decisions.  Don’t we all!

But throughout my life, pieces of that 1963 commencement address have echoed in my head at the most opportune moments.  My life, like that of so many of my classmates, has taken turns and paths I never could have expected.  Yours will, too.  I certainly never expected to be standing here with you as chancellor of this wonderful institution—the most fulfilling choice I ever made.

I grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in a family that didn’t have much.  So I spent a good deal of time riding the subway to museums and libraries, places where you could wander around for a long time for free.  When I came to CCNY—another place where you could wander around for a long time (then for the price of books)—I encountered a magically different world: a world of hills, spires, gargoyles, and cathedral-like spaces.  And even downtown CCNY, not as architecturally interesting, offered the bustling world of 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue.  It was like being let in to a secret place in the city, an enclave of great architecture, smart people, and big ideas—just like it is today.  And I’ve had the privilege of witnessing thousands of graduates like you—graduates of all backgrounds, races, and ambitions—have their lives transformed by it.  In turn, they’ve transformed the lives of countless others.

And that journey happened because Dr. King was right.  There is no room for boredom or apathy or silence in your life.  They aren’t passive states at all.  They’re insidiously debilitating and harmful.   “Human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability,” Dr. King said 50 years ago.  “Human progress comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals….The time is always ripe to do right.”

What I’ve learned over the past 50 years is that with a little humility, a lot of action, and even more persistence, you can succeed in fostering a little bit of the dignity and drive and compassion that are the building blocks of our collective humanity.  And believe me, we need that as much today as we did 50 years ago.

So, graduates, today I take this opportunity to urge you to focus on improved ends—what we are—and not exclusively on improved means—what we use.  You haven’t reached this day in order to BE something; you’ve reached this day in order to DO something—something meaningful.  This degree doesn’t end a journey; it starts a mission.  Let this day be your own awakening.

Dr. King never used the word “congratulations” when he addressed me and my classmates.  Rather, he reminded us that we were entering a world of what he called “catastrophic change and calamitous uncertainty.”  Sound familiar?  He understood that graduation isn’t about accomplishment; it’s about commitment.  Your education doesn’t bestow privilege, but responsibility.

Last month, a concert pianist wrote a marvelous piece in the New Yorker about what he had learned from his own teachers and mentors—some amazing people, just like yours here at CCNY.  He ended by saying (quote): “There’s a labyrinth of voices inside your head…the remembered sayings of your guides and mentors, who don’t always agree.  Sometimes you wish you could go back and ask your teachers again to guide you; but up there onstage, exactly where they always wanted you to be, you must simply find your way.  They have given all the help they can; the only person who can solve the labyrinth of yourself is you.” (unquote)

His words remind me of a story I heard long ago about an old, tired tribal elder living out his last days on an Indian reservation.  On the outskirts of the reservation, he is accosted by three thugs, who begin taunting him.  One says, “If you’re such a wise man, then you should be able to answer this question.  I have a bird in my hand.  Old man, is the bird alive or dead?”  If the old man answers that the bird is alive, the thug will pinch the beak and it will die.  If he answers that it’s dead, the thug will open his hand and the bird will fly away.  The old man is silent for a moment, then looks at the three men and says, “The answer is in your hands.”

And so it is with you.  Thank you—and remember your alma mater.