“You are young, gifted and Black. We must begin to tell our young, ‘There’s a world waiting for you, yours is the quest that’s just begun.’” — James Weldon Johnson
Each year I have the privilege to speak at commencement ceremonies at colleges and universities, large and small, across the country.
Most recently, I had the honor to address Grambling State University, an HBCU that is experiencing a resurgence under President Rick Gallot, most notably for its cutting-edge new cybersecurity program. As an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, I’m proud to join the “Gram Fam.”
To them — and to all the graduates of 2019 — I share the message of “the three B’s”: the ballot, the book and the buck. The ballot: this generation must thunder to the polls to make its voice heard, even as there are forces at work to silence it. We cannot surrender the power of the ballot. The book: today’s graduates achieve something fewer than 25% of African Americans have achieved, a college degree. May their learning and curiosity continue for life. The buck: our people must accumulate appreciating assets — real estate, investments, small businesses. This generation must build a new path toward economic empowerment.
These commencement ceremonies are always joyous occasions, attended by parents bursting with pride over their children’s achievements. As someone who has the privilege to lead a movement that has dedicated itself to preparing every child for college, work and life, I share that pride.
More than three million students and adults have been served by Urban League affiliates’ education services since 2005. Earlier this month, many of our affiliates in the Project Ready program celebrated College Signing Day, highlighting the achievements of our high schoolers who have been accepted to further their educations.
While I’m proud of our Urban League accomplishments — as proud as those parents in the crowds at college commencements — I am also reminded of those whom opportunity has eluded.
As the late evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould wrote, “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”
Last week marked the 65th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, one of the most significant civil rights cases of the 20th century. We were proud to participate in the commemorative rally at the U.S. Capitol commemorating the decision. Falling as it does in the midst of graduation season, it is an occasion to reflect on the significance of the decision and how far we have yet to go.
Our mission to prepare every child for college, work and life is especially close to my heart as the son of an educator, and also as a child of the south, born into the waning days of Jim Crow. My parents attended segregated schools and I was one of the very first black students at the schools I attended. In 1954, the year Brown was decided, my father became the first African American to receive a law degree from Louisiana State University. In that same year, my mother was rejected from attending graduate school at Tulane University because of her race.
It is the stories of my parents’ generation, and those who came before them, that inspires the work of the National Urban League and the Urban League Movement. We are improving outcomes not only for the students enrolled in our programs, but for public schools as a whole, thanks to our advocacy and activism. The National Urban League’s Equity and Excellence project supports local, state and national advocacy, engagement and education reform efforts.
Most recently, we issued “report cards” to states around the country, evaluating their federally required plans to address educational inequity. We included recommendations like congressional hearings on the areas of concern we identified.
The Urban League Movement is committed to opening the doors of opportunity to every child, in every community. You can find out more about our efforts — and how you can help — at ncos.iamempowered.com.
Morial is president of the National Urban League.