It’s graduation season and with that, commencement speeches. Two recent speeches have resonated with me so far this spring.
President Obama, addressing the Atlanta, Georgia- based Morehouse College, a historically all-black male school founded after the Civil War, invoked Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Morehouse,’48.
“…he taught a nation to be unafraid. And over the last 50 years, thanks to the moral force of Dr. King and a Moses generation that overcame their fear and their cynicism and their despair, barriers have come tumbling down, and new doors of opportunity have swung open, and laws and hearts and minds have been changed to the point where someone who looks just like you can somehow come to serve as President of these United States of America…”
Reading his speech this morning, I thought of the film, 42, the biographical sports film about baseball player Jackie Robinson, the first African American to break the baseball color barrier win 1946 when he joined the Montreal Royals and later played for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Had Robinson opted to stay in the Negro Baseball League, his life might have been a lot easier. Subjected to humiliating racial taunts from opponents, teammates, and baseball fans, he refused to become angry or fight back. He won people over by his athletic prowess, by winning for his team.
As President Obama reminded the Morehouse men, “…Every one of you have a grandma or an uncle or a parent who’s told you that at some point in life, as an African American, you have to work twice as hard as anyone else if you want to get by…” The President urged the graduates to set an example, help others, and work for justice. He praised the school’s legacy of “Men who refuse to be afraid…”
Courage. And that’s what New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, asked the 410 graduates at Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio, Saturday, to show. He advocated that they continue to learn, to work hard, and to exhibit courage. “…Have the courage to act on your hopes; don’t be paralyzed by your fears. Have the courage to think for yourself and to believe in your ideas. That kind of courage lies at the heart of human invention and progress – and the lack of it lies at the heart of our political problems today…”
Courage, he said, is needed to fight for gun control, to fight for gay marriage rights, to affect climate change, and to close the academic achievement gap.
Ruminating on these speeches, I thought of two recent incidents.
A gorgeous Sunday a couple weeks ago, I joined my cycling friends on rural roads in New Jersey. I had to leave the ride early for an afternoon commitment, so missed this event, captured here. I’m not sure I’d have been as composed as my friends, when they were told by a passerby to get off “his” road. I admire how they, mostly African Americans, don’t let someone’s moronic attitudes ruin their day.
And ironically, the evening after Mayor Bloomberg gave his speech about courage, a gay man, Mark Carson, was murdered at gunpoint in NYC’s Greenwich Village, target of a hate crime. Attacks against gays have increased in recent months in NYC; a suspect has been charged. One can only wonder if a background check for this obviously troubled man, who had a criminal record, could have prevented this murder.
Courage, indeed. Our graduates need lots of it.