Billionaire and philanthropist Robert F. Smith delivered his commencement speech at Morehouse College on May 19, 2019. In this speech, he paid off the student loans of Morehouse graduates which reportedly estimated at $40 million.
The following is the full transcript [verbatim as delivered] of that speech at Morehouse College.
Robert F. Smith – Billionaire and philanthropist
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.