Home » Robert F. Smith’s Commencement Speech at Morehouse (Full Transcript)

Robert F. Smith’s Commencement Speech at Morehouse (Full Transcript)

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.

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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.

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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.

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