Middlebury

Walter E. Massey, Doctor of Science

 

"Your Difference Can Make the Difference"

Dr. Walter E. Massey
President Emeritus, Morehouse College

Middlebury College Commencement Address
May 25, 2008

 

 

To President Ronald Liebowitz and the Middlebury College Board of Trustees; to the distinguished members of the faculty, and my fellow honorees; to the many alumni, family members, special guests, and friends of the college who are gathered here today; and most of all, to the members of the 2008 graduating class:

 

I am so deeply honored to have been invited to be a part of this great celebration, not only to receive an honorary degree, but also to deliver the commencement address. This is a beautiful campus, and you have made me feel right at home here.

 

In fact, I already have a special connection with Middlebury. My freshman English teacher at Morehouse College was Gladstone Lewis Chandler, a 1926 graduate of Middlebury. When I landed in his class, from the 10th grade in high school, I had no idea what a gerund was, and I thought a dangling participle was a species of fruit. So, Professor Chandler patiently tutored me, using a high school text simultaneously with the college text, in the fine points of reading, writing and speaking. He was absolutely fantastic.

 

Martin Luther King Jr., also a Morehouse alumnus, credited Professor Chandler with influencing his legendary oratorical speaking style. Well, as you will see in a few moments, although Professor Chandler was a fine teacher, I am not able to make the same assertion as Dr. King.

 

Still, I am delighted to be here. And the first thing I want you all to know is that I am no novice on the subject of commencement addresses. I have delivered several over my lifetime, and I have listened to many, many more than I have given. And, over the years, I learned one important lesson and that is, there is only one thing graduates appreciate more than an uplifting, inspirational commencement speech, and that is a brief one. Although I may not satisfy the former criterion, I do intend to satisfy the latter.

 

I also know that every college graduating class is told that it is a special class, that it is entering the world beyond academia at a special time in history, and that what you, the graduates, do in life can have a profound impact on society. You expect to hear that, and so do your parents. So, of course, I am going to tell you that. But, in this case, I really think that it is true - for three key reasons.

 

First, whether you realize it or not, you and your generation are different - I would argue, significantly different from previous generations of graduates in the way you think and feel on a number of issues. For example, according to a study commissioned by the Case Foundation, your generation, that is, people born between the late '70s and the early '90s, is the most racially diverse generation in American history. And we see that diversity reflected here at Middlebury, where, according to your Web site, about a third of the student body is non-white. Perhaps as a result of your diversity, plus the fact that your parents are more likely to have moved around the country than did their parents, you are more open to forming relationships outside of your own racial, ethnic and economic background.

 

The second reason I think my claim about your specialness is true is that you are the generation that has literally grown up with technology. Digital devices such as cell phones, iPods, and blackberries are de rigueur for people your age. And your facility with communicating through email, text messaging, wikis, blogs, and social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace is taken for granted. This technology gives you two things your parents and grandparents did not have: instant access to all kinds of information, and instant access to all kinds of people. When a student in Vermont can be in a chat room with a student from Viet Nam, it really is a small world, after all.

 

Third, and most important to my argument that you are special, is the fact that you are at the center of the confluence of unprecedented historical circumstances. Think about it. Only one out of four classes graduates in the middle of a presidential campaign, and no class in our nation's history has been witness to and participant in a presidential election in which the contenders are a woman, a black man, and a person over 70 years old. No matter what happens in November, if you participate in the campaign in any way, you will have played a role in changing the face of the leadership of this country in ways we could only have imagined even a few decades ago.

 

So, you are, indeed, special, because of your different relationships and attitudes, your different technologies, and your different circumstances.

 

I believe - and this is my message for you today - that your difference can make the difference, the difference in how we relate to one another, and how we solve the problems of our planet. I believe that because of who you are, and the tools you have access to, and where you are in our history, you can, in ways that previous generations could not, fundamentally change our nation and our world for the better.

 

Thanks to the fine education you have received at Middlebury, you can use your influence to change the world in any number of fields - law, medicine, politics, the arts, the environment, education, business, athletics, science and many others. But I want you to consider that the area in which you can, perhaps, make the greatest impact, the area in which you and your generation can leave the most lasting legacy, is on the issue of race in America.

 

Now, don't worry. I promise not to be too heavy handed in my remarks. But I thought it appropriate to talk about race, for a number of reasons. First of all, this is the 175th anniversary of the graduation of Alexander Twilight from Middlebury College. As I hope you know, Twilight, who graduated in 1823, 103 years before Professor Chandler, was the first African American to graduate from any college in the United States. So, Middlebury has a long history of participating in racial advancement in the United States.

 

It is also the 54th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that officially allowed schools throughout the United States, mostly in the South, to be fully integrated. So now, two generations of students have had an opportunity to attend schools from which they were formerly officially denied entrance.

 

Last weekend, and this is important, at least for me, I celebrated the 50th anniversary of my graduation from Morehouse College in Atlanta. Attending our celebration, I was reminded of the changes that have taken place in the South with respect to race relations since the time I entered that college in 1954. Back then, blacks in Atlanta were still not allowed to ride in the front of the bus, to eat at lunch counters downtown, or to enter movie theaters by the front door. And in Mississippi, where I was born, there were still colored and white drinking fountains.

 

By the way, for you younger people who may not know, colored is what black people were called before we were called Negro, or black, or African-American. And now, we are called people of color. Ironic, isn't it?

 

Today, Atlanta has its fourth black mayor - and she is a woman. In Mississippi, almost a quarter of the legislators are African American. And the mayor of Jackson, the state capital, and the mayor of Hattiesburg, my hometown, are African-Americans.

 

Of course, race in America is also a timely topic given the current presidential campaign, which I mentioned earlier.

 

Despite, I believe, everyone's best efforts and Senator Obama's expressed desire to run a post-racialist campaign - that is, a campaign that acknowledges the historical and present-day importance of race, but does not make it a dominant or even a central part of his campaign - it seems that this has been almost impossible to achieve. After a very promising beginning, when all the candidates and most of their prominent supporters and the media mostly refrained from remarks with pejorative racial connotations, the race issue has moved to front-and-center of the campaign, and sometimes in very ugly ways.

 

In addition to race, this presidential campaign is also confronting us with issues of gender and age - gender, a longtime concern in American politics, and age, a relatively new issue as, fortunately, and I am speaking for myself, we are living longer and healthier lives.

 

The fact is that despite the overheated racial rhetoric of this campaign, there is, in the words of sociologist William Julius Wilson, a declining significance of race in America in many aspects of our society. And, because of your important differences from previous generations, you have a special opportunity to hasten that decline.

 

Many of you may have missed the announcement of the recent death of Mrs. Mildred Loving. You may have missed this announcement because you probably never heard of Mrs. Mildred Loving.

 

Well, Richard and Mildred Loving were a couple; he was black and she was white. In 1958, the year I graduated from Morehouse, they were married in Washington, D.C., because their home state of Virginia still upheld the anti-miscegenation law, which stated that interracial marriages were illegal. After they married, the Lovings lived together in Caroline County, Virginia. In 1959, they were prosecuted and convicted of violating the state's anti-miscegenation law, and each sentenced to one year in jail. They were promised the sentences would be suspended if they agreed to leave Virginia and not return for 25 years - a bizarre sentence.

 

So, they went back to Washington, D.C., where, in 1963, they initiated a law suit challenging the constitutionality of Virginia's anti-miscegenation law. At that time, 15 other states had such laws on the books, more than one quarter of all the states in America, and 60 percent of whites polled supported laws forbidding marriages between the races. In March 1966, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the law, but in June 1967, with almost a third of polled whites still opposing interracial marriage, the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled the law unconstitutional. So it was only in 1967 that a black and white couple could get married legally in every state in the United States.

 

Today, much less than 10 percent of the population would support a law banning interracial marriages. And for people of your generation, that is, those under 30, less than five percent would support a law banning interracial marriages. Obviously, this is a huge difference between your attitudes and the attitudes of your grandparents' and your parents' generations. These generational changes in attitudes and opinions, which are captured in the General Society Survey that has been conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago for more than 60 years, show up in practically all other measures of racial attitudes.

 

For example, in 1973, about two-thirds of Americans thought it was okay to have laws allowing for discrimination in housing on the basis of race. Today, the figure is less than half that, and for people under 30, more than 70 percent would oppose such laws. There has been a complete turnaround in the number of people for and against having laws that allow discrimination in housing on the basis of race. Interestingly, my generation, those 70 and over, are still about equally split on this issue.

 

Another interesting tidbit: In 1958, my graduation year, your grandparents' generation, almost two-thirds of whites said they would be unwilling to vote for a black for president. In 1972, your parents' generation, one-fourth of Americans still were unwilling. Today, fewer than 7 percent say they are unwilling - that is, more than 93 percent say they would vote for a black for president. And for under 30-year-olds, that number is even higher.

 

I want my message to you to be clear. I do not, by stressing the positive things that have happened over these past five decades, wish to leave the impression that we are living in a utopia, and that we still do not have problems with race relations in the United States. That would be totally naive on my part to suggest, and you would recognize that it is not true. Also, racial issues are much more complex in many ways. They no longer simply involve blacks and whites, but also Hispanics, Native Americans, and multiracial individuals.

 

And, we certainly still confront issues of disparities among the races in so many ways: Blacks and Hispanics are much less likely to graduate from high school at the same rate as whites; quality healthcare and quality education are not as available for blacks and Hispanics; the incarceration rates among blacks, especially males, is a serious problem for society; and the number of blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans mired in poverty is something that should be an embarrassment for a nation as rich as ours. And, as this election season has demonstrated, there are probably many more whites than indicated in the NORC surveys who will not vote for a black person for president under any circumstances. But if one looks at the profiles of such persons in exit interviews, it can be seen that they are mostly of generations that represent the past, not the future.

 

But my argument, and my belief, is that things have improved and that your generation is key - essential, really - to continuing and, indeed, accelerating that improvement in the area of race relations, and also in the actual quality of life for all Americans. Furthermore, if we do not recognize that we have made progress, despite the many problems, we may lose our confidence that we can, indeed, become even better. Those who would argue that America has not significantly changed and improved its race relations over the past several decades are simply ignoring obvious evidence or have either lived in a different country than the one I have seen in my lifetime.

 

I mentioned earlier, twice, actually, not that I am bragging or anything like that, that I celebrated my 50th graduation from Morehouse last week. You know that Morehouse is a historically black college for men. But this year's valedictorian was a young man named Joshua Packwood, a white student who earned the top honor in his graduating class with a 4.0 GPA. Josh is the first white Valedictorian in Morehouse's 140 year history.

 

Josh was also a Presidential Scholar, so I had the pleasure of getting to know him very well while I was president at Morehouse. Josh passed up offers from Harvard and other Ivy League institutions, because, he said, being at Morehouse would give him something he simply could not get at those other places - a quality, liberal arts education and an entirely different perspective on the world, the perspective of being a minority in a majority environment, which most whites do not have the opportunity to experience. As a result of his experience at Morehouse, Josh is different. And I have no doubt that his difference can and will make a difference in the world, in whatever ways and to whatever issues he chooses to apply his intellect and energy.

 

I believe that about you, too, whatever your race, whether you are black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American or biracial. I believe your difference can make the difference - the difference between a world at war, and a world at peace; the difference between a world where people die because of poverty and disease, and a world where everyone thrives in plenty and health; and the difference between a nation and a world where race matters, and one where it does not.

 

I know it is almost impossible to appreciate the profound difference you can make right now, when you are young and just beginning to achieve your full measure of independence and influence, and especially when your priority of the moment is getting your hands on that official diploma with the Middlebury seal.

 

But, I am here to remind you this morning of the importance of using the influence you will have to help shape society in more positive ways. And, because you can make such a positive impact, it is important that you participate fully in the full spectrum of activities that fuel a democracy. So volunteer, join, sign up, vote, even run for office or support someone who does, but be involved.

 

Believe me: Your mere involvement will make the difference - literally all the difference in the world.

 

Congratulations, best wishes, and Godspeed!