THE CHALLENGE TO GENERATION D:
BEYOND THE COLOR LINE
(As Prepared for Delivery)
My congratulations to the graduates. I commend each of you—especially students graduating magna cum laude or summa cum laude or cum laude, and all the parents who are just thinking, “It’s finally graduation day, thank you, Lordy”—I congratulate you all.
I did not attend Howard. But I am an heir to this institution. We all are. Because each of us stands on the shoulders of those who walked the grounds of this special place.
We stand on the shoulders of Howard University President Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, who helped introduce Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to nonviolence; and America became an heir to a revolution for social justice.
We stand on the shoulders of Howard University’s Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who authored new chapters in the history of our people; and all Americans became heirs to a history as rich, as diverse, as compelling as those represented in this millennial graduating class.
We stand on the shoulders of Howard alumni Toni Morrison and Zora Neal Hurston. They painted a portrait of the African-American family; and all Americans became heirs to stories so rich, so textured, so lovingly detailed that they changed the face of 20th century American literature.
We stand on the shoulders of Howard’s Charles Hamilton Houston. He made the law school a civil rights citadel where lawyers like Thurgood Marshall, Vernon Jordan and President James Madison Nabrit Jr. were trained to battle for justice; and all Americans, became heirs to laws that can, in the words of the prophet Amos, allow “justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
And we stand on the shoulders of Howard’s Dr. Benjamin Hooks. He was a pioneer for civil rights as the head of the NAACP and the first African-American member of the Federal Communications Commission.
As the FCC’s first African-American chairman, I stand on his shoulders.
I know one thing, I would not be standing before you today as Chairman of the FCC were it not for this institution.
Howard’s story is my story. It is our story. The story of African-American families.
We must recognize those most responsible for this graduation: the mothers and fathers, the grandmothers and grandfathers, the aunts and uncles.
These are the people who cosigned the student loans, loaded the U-Haul trucks, paid the tuition or promised to, those who sent the care packages and paid for the collect calls, who wired the money—who borrowed money from your aunt—who borrowed from your uncle—who loaned the money to your mother—who pretended to loan it to you.
Today we recognize them all. As you graduate into this www.dot-com economy, never, EVER forget those who taught you your ABC’s.
Thinking about families, I cannot help but think about my own grandfather and the lessons he taught his family.
My grandfather—his name was James Kennard—worked on the network that formed the foundation of the Industrial Age. He was a Pullman porter on the railroads. It was in fact the best job a black man could have on the railroad in those days.
My grandfather was a brilliant man. A learned man. A beautiful writer. He could quote everything from the Bible to Shakespeare. And my grandfather was completely self-taught—a man whose only professor was his own curiosity.
And yet he rode the rails for years and could go nowhere. He could be a part of the most important industrial network of his time, so long as he stayed in his place as the man who carried the bags.
My grandfather wanted to find a better life for his family. So he left the segregated south and moved them to California.
But even in California, the black children would go to one school, the white children to another. It turns out that the black school was across town. The white school was a few blocks away.
When my father was five, my grandfather sent him off to the neighborhood school. And they sent my dad home.
The principal said, “colored children can’t go to this school.”
The next day, my grandfather dressed my father up and sent him back to that school. And they sent him home again. My grandfather said, “you belong there.” So he sent him back again. And again. It was tough on my dad—kids used to chase him home and throw rocks at him. But he was quick and wiry—like me. So he made it through.
And finally, the principal relented. “Okay,” he said. “We’ll take the Kennard boy.”
My grandfather taught my dad that when the doors of opportunity are closed, you knock. And when nobody answers, you keep knocking. And if nobody answers that door of opportunity, then you break that door down and walk on through.
My grandfather taught his son to smash through glass ceilings maintained by the insecure and the incompetent. My grandfather taught his son that when a road block lies in your path, you drive under it, around it, through it, over it—that you let nothing stand in the way of your dreams.
That was my grandfather’s lesson to my father and my father’s lesson to me. And I know it is Howard’s lesson to you.
Today you receive degrees in your diverse fields—engineering, literature, medicine and law. But you go forth from this campus as more than specialists in any field. You are heirs to a tradition—a tradition that teaches us we can do anything we dream and demands that we bring everyone along.
It’s a powerful tradition embodied in your motto: “Leadership for America and the Global Community.”
This tradition certainly echoes in the story of Andrew Young.
Andy is another distinguished graduate of this institution—an heir to this tradition. Andy is a pioneer of the civil rights movement. He was a mayor, a congressman, an ambassador to the United Nations.
For Andy Young, a lifetime of achievement began by asking one question. In his memoir, An Easy Burden, he tells the story, that after three years at Howard of not seriously applying himself he had the uneasy feeling that he was not doing all that he could with what he had.
In the summer before his senior year at Howard, Andy returned to his hometown of New Orleans. He ran into an old friend named Lincoln. They talked about the different paths they had taken in life.
Despite growing up at the same time, in the same community, they didn’t have the same opportunity.
Andy’s mother and father were able to send him to college. Lincoln’s mother struggled to raise eight children by herself. While Andy was looking forward to a life of new opportunity, Lincoln had dropped out of school. One thing led to another, and he finally ended up in jail.
Andy returned to Howard unable to put Lincoln out of his mind. Thinking about Lincoln, a verse from the book of Luke tugged at Andy’s soul:
“To whom much is given, much is required.”
And Andy asked himself: “What will be required of me?”
We all know that Andy Young answered that question with words and work, declaration and deeds, a lifetime of service and sacrifice.
And that brings me to my challenge for this graduating class—for you the heirs to the tradition of Howard—this tradition of producing leaders for America and the global community.
To whom much is given, much is required.
Much has been given to you. I call you GENERATION D, the digital generation. You will graduate into a world where the Internet will give you instantaneous access to global markets; where you can use a device that you will hold in the palm of your hand to access more information than is contained in the Howard University library. And I know you will go forward to invent even greater technologies and with them you will achieve what we cannot even imagine today.
But the promise of this digital era is not just building smarter devices. It is building stronger communities.
Technology cannot give every American access to opportunity until every American has access to technology.
At the dawn of the last century, W.E.B. DuBois said, “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.” At the dawn of this century, our challenge is to make sure that the color line does not determine who is on-line.
Thirty-five years ago, President Lyndon Johnson stood here and delivered a landmark address on civil rights.
He said those now famous words: “You cannot take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”
What Lyndon Johnson said 35 years ago is even more true today. Because today the race is being run on Internet time. The race track is a global network of fiber-optic lines, broadband cables and wireless connections over which ones and zeroes race at Internet speed. Those who start behind will stay behind—and this race runs so fast they may never catch up.
And we are already off to an uneven start. Blacks and Hispanics are only 40 percent as likely as whites to have Internet access at home. This gap between the information haves and haves-nots is called the digital divide.
Now some people argue there is no digital divide. In fact, it is an argument brought to you by the same folks who say we live in a color-blind society. Frankly, I don’t know what country those people live in. It certainly isn’t the America I know.
That is why I have devoted my tenure at the FCC to bridging this divide of opportunity—to preventing the color line from deciding who is on-line—to ensuring that every American has access to the tools of the 21st century.
I believe that ensuring that all Americans have access to technology is the civil rights challenge of this new millennium.
We will not meet this challenge until all of our children are as interested in becoming Michael Dell as they are in becoming Michael Jordan—when they would rather have the latest laptops than the latest high-tops.
And for me, meeting that challenge—embracing public service—has been the most exhilarating experience of my life.
I have seen the faces of children in our inner cities light up as they surf the web for the first time. Then I’ve known the reward of crafting the policies that will wire a million classrooms to the Internet.
Thanks to the vision of President Clinton and Vice President Gore, since 1997 this country has invested 10 billion dollars to connect our schools to the Internet. It’s a program called the e-rate. And I am proud to say that in three years we have wired one million classrooms to the Internet, improving the lives of 40 million American children.
And I have visited the homes of Native Americans on reservations in New Mexico and Arizona. Too many of them are still waiting for a telephone. I heard their stories too. They told me about what it is like to live in the 21st century without a telephone, when you can’t call your doctor or an ambulance or the police.
Then I’ve known the satisfaction of working with my FCC colleagues on proposals to bring basic telephone service to over one million low-income Indian people on tribal lands.
I have had the privilege of meeting almost every one of the CEOs of the high-tech sector—these 20 and 30 something billionaires who, overnight, have created almost unimaginable wealth. And, you know, not one of those CEOs who have walked through my door is African-American, and that has got to change. And you are going to change it.
I have heard the stories of Americans with disabilities who worry that this Internet revolution will pass them by…and then celebrated with them as we created the rules to ensure that they will have access to this wondrous technology.
I am proud of the work that we have done to bring all Americans into the Information Age together—to bridge the digital divide. But we have only just begun. And what my generation has done is but a prelude to what this generation can do—as heirs to the Howard tradition. So I want to leave you with one question: what is required of you?
What is required of you? The very same determination that enabled your families here today to put sacrifice before self, to put your tuition before their vacations, your graduation before their retirement.
What is required of you? Not merely net worth but the wealth of character that declares across this yawning digital divide: leave no one behind, bring everyone along.
What is required of you? Not merely a degree but the knowledge that a Howard University diploma means that you are not only qualified to compete but blessed to serve.
What is required of you? Service. So much so, the legacy of the Howard tradition bears eloquent witness to the truth of the poet who wrote:
No vision and you perish; No ideal, and you're lost; Your heart must ever cherish, Some faith at any cost.
Some hope, some dream to cling to, Some rainbow in the sky, Some melody to sing to, Some service that is high.
What is required of you? That when the call is heard, to answer in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Here I am. Send me.”
What is required of you? To heed the book of Ephesians, “having done all to stand, just stand.”
And now having studied, worked, saved, persevered, persisted through sacrifice and dreamed…simply stand.
As you receive your diplomas today, stand.
Stand with my grandfather.
Stand with your mothers.
Stand with your fathers.
Stand with all the members of your family.
Stand with your classmates.
Stand with your professors.
And stand with the untold multitude of Howard alumni who brought you to where you are—that you might lead this nation to where it should be.
Congratulations and thank you very much.
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