On Friday, May 24, 2013, noted civil rights leader Myrlie Evers-Williams delivered our commencement address. The video is posted below. Beneath it, you will find a verbatim transcript of her inspiring address.
I am deeply moved to be the recipient of this honorary degree. I am moved for many reasons. It is not just another degree bestowed upon me, or others, but it is significant that today you have this wonderful group of graduates that gave me inspiration to continue my work. Because as I stood along the walkway, and I saw the graduates coming through, many of them had signs on their headboards, and some of them said, “It’s time.” Others said, “It’s happening.” And I heard some cheers coming from others who walked by, and the smiles that were on the faces of, I believe, every graduate that passed by. And I felt a swelling in my heart. One was of pride, even though I don’t know you personally — but of seeing a group of people, of young people, having accomplished something that you have accomplished … And I sensed then within this group of graduates, there will be those of whom we will hear and read about in the future. But more than that, there was a feeling of joy. There was a feeling of promise. And I congratulate each and every one of you. But I also congratulate the parents: those who stood by you, who helped you, who guided you to reach this point where you are today … and for those who took out loans to help you reach this day. And, of course, I know you are feeling full of pride, full of strength. Your spirit is high … and I suspect that your parents, or those persons responsible for getting you to this point, also are giving a sigh of relief. Don’t be too quick about it. Students have a way of coming back home and reclaiming their rooms — and sometimes they bring others along with them, so it’s not over yet. Pray for strength and endurance and the ability to be flexible with whatever happens along the way because, as someone said, “It happens — and it happens here, and it’s going to continue to.” But what I know, in this brief time I have known about this wonderful institution of higher learning, that there is a spirit that exists here, a spirit of “can do,” a spirit of “will do,” a spirit of “have done,” and a spirit that says, “I must continue.” And I think that’s embodied in this class and in this institution. So celebrate today — and perhaps I should say, pray for tomorrow, for “we know not what cometh.” But I believe in being an optimist. Regardless of how difficult things become, regardless of what curves life throws you, that you can always, if you will, find the good in almost anything. It took me some time to reach that observation and that point of acceptance, but it is true. I think of my father as I stand here before you, who questioned my abilities to do what he expected me to do, and what I had done in the past. When I left high school and went to college for the very first time, straight “A” student, knowing that I was going to take over the world — but take over the world in a segregated society. When I moved to California, resettled my family and re-entered an institution of higher learning, I was shocked. I was shocked because I was told that none of my credits were good or would be accepted and that I would have to start over again from the very beginning. My father said to me, as time went on, “I don’t like your grades. Why aren’t you Phi Beta Kappa?” “Dad, I have three children, I am working, I am taking a full class load at school, and I have wounds that are trying to heal. I am not Phi Beta Kappa material.” He finally accepted that, and things went on as they should have — but out of all of that, the rejection of the grades that I had earned before said to me, “There is so much more to learn, and another way to learn those things, if you try it in another way, if you are challenged to do better than you think you ever could do.” And the day that I received my degree from Pomona College, the audience applauded, and my son asked, “Mom, why do they applaud you?” I threw my chest back and I said, “Because I’m me, because I am a survivor, and because I hope I will be able to lead the way for others to do so.” My message to you is that you never know what will happen when adversity faces you, or you face adversity. Believe in yourself; believe in your goals. Realize that there will be setbacks, but let those setbacks only serve as fuel to move you forward. Life is not all we think it is supposed to be, but we can help make life what we want, and we can help — and you have a responsibility, graduates, of making life better for others as well, and I am sure that is something that you have learned not only in your homes, in your communities, but at this wonderful institution of higher learning, because I stand before you today, looking back with hope and determination of some 50 years ago when I thought perhaps my life was over, and the life of so many people who worked in the movement to bring America to the level of what it should be, that those things were actually going to happen. With your generation, you have been saved from the bitterness and the tragedy of hatred and racism. You have inherited a much better country because of sacrifices that other people made — but have a responsibility to keep America going, moving, in a positive way, because if we do not, we are missing a great part of the reason that we are here and the reason that we are Americans. You have been given the tools for success; my question to you is, how will you use those tools? And there may be some in this audience, not only the graduates, who say, “It’s not my business. I’m fine; I’m doing okay. Why don’t those people who continue to raise issues fade away? We don’t need to hear.” But be aware: Whether we accept or whether we reject what we are supposed to do as individuals, as citizens of this country, as citizens of the world — whatever you decide to do, there will be an impact: positive, negative, and somewhere in between. Fifty years have passed very quickly, and I must tell you that I was once filled with anger; I will even say that I was filled with hatred. But negativity never solved any problem … but to believe in something, to find ways around and in and out, to achieve goals that will be better for yourselves and your families, your neighbors, your state, your country, your institutions of higher learning — go for it! Hatred is bitter, and it has taken a long time to move from that point to this, but I am so thankful and I am so blessed that I had friends, that I had deep beliefs, that I had love, that I was surrounded by people who felt the same way that I did. And I am so thankful to have had a grandmother who taught me that hate was not the way to go, that you embrace all of the good that you can find and continue to grow with it. You are challenged today to take part in a global economy, to find your place and make things better. And in America, the source of our prosperity rests with each and every one of us here and abroad, and never before has a college degree been more important than it is today. Never has it been more expensive, either, I don’t believe. And at a time when many families are facing economic burdens, the rising cost of tuition threatens to shatter dreams — but those are dreams that we must not allow to die, and find a way in which … and I was so moved to hear that monies have been gathered for a possible scholarship to help other students come here. What a marvelous sense of giving and doing that you have. Continue to build on that; continue to search this country, its deepest roots; realize that you, individually and collectively, can make a difference in what America is. Do not wait until we have another World Trade Center, or another marathon in Boston or elsewhere, to bring us together as a group of people who believe in justice, who believe in equality — and who are willing to work for it. And do not fool yourselves that that is over and done with. It is not. Something so simple, we think, as a discussion on the golf course as to whether one golfer, as he said, would hold dinner for another golfer and serve fried chicken. Just as subtle as it can be, but it’s there. But I dare say that there are people of many colors and creeds who love fried chicken. It may be that we prepare fried chicken in different ways, but we love fried chicken. I hope the golfer who made that comment will pay attention to that. But we are here to celebrate you as you move forward, as you move forward into life, as you leave the hallowed grounds of this institution of higher learning … that the philanthropy in you will continue to reach out, not only to make this college better, but to find a way to bring more students in so that they can enjoy the benefits that you did. You’re on the cusp of doing something absolutely wonderful and marvelous. And I think about a bird … I like to share this story. There are all kinds of different birds which we know. But then, there is that magnificent eagle. And you are ready to spread your wings, and I think about that eagle, because it is the only bird that loves the storm. It has been born with the ability to lock its wings and rise above the storm. While other birds seek shelter, the eagle is soaring, the eagle is challenging — the eagle flies above the storm. And my words to you? Be eagles. Fly above the storm, for you owe it to those who love and have worked with you; you owe it to those of the future who you do not know, but who will rely on you for guidance — and you owe it to yourselves. So, Wagner College has helped to strengthen the wings of eagles. Go, and fly!