Emory Report
My 30, 2006
Volume 58, Number 31


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May 30 , 2006
‘Enduring values’

Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, was the keynote speaker at Emory’s 2006 Commencement ceremony.

I am so honored to be here on this beautiful day with your president and trustees, Stephen Bright and the other honoree, your faculty, with your families, but most importantly, with what I'm sure is the best graduating class in the history of Emory University.

Mark Hatfield, a wonderful former Republican senator from Oregon, asked: How can we stand by as children starve by the millions because we lack the will to eliminate hunger, yet we have found the will to develop missiles capable of flying over the polar cap and landing within a few hundred feet of their target? This, Hatfield said, is not innovation; it is a profound distortion of humanity's purpose on earth. The agrarian poet Wendell Berry said the most alarming sign of the state of our society is that our leaders have the courage to sacrifice the lives of young people in war but have not the courage to tell us we must be less greedy and less wasteful.

Something is out of balance and out of kilter in the world that we live in when just 691 billionaires have wealth that is equivalent to 3 billion people living in our 89 poorest developing countries. About 347 are in the United States. They didn't need tax cuts in 2001, 2003, 2004 and again this year in the midst of two costly wars, when Katrina's children and familes are suffering without mental health and health care and education. When we have the highest debt in our history, the highest trade and budget deficits in our history, and the gap between the haves and have-nots is at the largest since we have been recording them. I want to remind us again that something is out of balance, as Dr. [Martin Luther] King tried to remind us and Dwight Eisenhower tried to remind us, when we continue to spend more on military needs than on needs of human uplift.

In 1953 Dwight Eisenhower talked about the stark life tradeoffs in our national choices and reminded us that every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone; it is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. I hope all of us today will engage in a national and moral debate about how we can change our moral compass and direction so that everybody can have enough in this rich world and in our rich nation.

I go back to my childhood, where the values were clear, more often than ever, and I hope that many of you graduating today will wander off the beaten path and help redefine success in the 21 st century world, asking not "How much can I get?" but "How much can I do without and share?" Too many of us are absorbed with, "How can I find myself?" Figure out how you can lose yourself in service to something that's bigger than yourself.

When I was growing up, and my brother Harry is here today, when we were growing up in little Bennettsville, S.C., service was as much a part of our upbringing as eating and sleeping and going to school. Caring black adults were buffers against the segregated prison of the outside world that told me, as a black girl, that I wasn't worth very much. But I didn't believe it because my parents said it wasn't so, my preacher (my daddy) said it wasn't so, and my teachers said it wasn't so.

The childhood message I internalized was that, as God's child, no man or woman could look down on me, and I could look down on no man or woman. I couldn't play in segregated public playgrounds or sit at segregated lunch counters--and I am pleased that I sat in first at the city hall and there's a black woman sitting in [Atlanta's] city hall today, so we have made progress--but my parents, whenever they saw a need, tried to respond. They built a playground/canteen behind our church. There were no black homes for the aged in my hometown, so my parents began one across the street. We children had to help cook and clean and we sure didn't like it at the time, but that was how we learned it was our responsibility to take care of our elderly relatives and neighbors--and that everyone was our neighbor.

Black church and community members were watchful extended parents; children were considered community property. They reported on me when I did wrong, applauded when I did well, and they were very clear that doing well meant being helpful to others, achieving in school and reading. All the Wright children figured out early on that the only time Daddy wouldn't give us a chore was when we were reading--we were all great readers. Children were taught by example that nothing was too lowly to do, and that the work of our heads and hands were both valuable.

Our families, religious congregations and the black community made children feel useful and important. And while life was often hard and resources scarce, we always knew who we were and that the measure of our worth was inside our heads and hearts, and not outside in personal possessions and ambition. We were taught that the world had a lot of problems, but we could struggle and change them; that intellectual and material gifts brought both the privilege and responsibility of sharing with others less fortunate, and that service is the rent every one of us pays for living. It's the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time or after you've reached your personal goals or earned that first million or billion.

I'm very grateful for these childhood legacies of a living faith reflected in daily service, the discipline of hard work, a capacity to struggle in the face of adversity. Giving up was not a part of my childhood lexicon; you got up every morning, and you did what you had to do, and you got up when you fell down, and you tried as many times as you had to until you got it right.

Our elders had grit. They valued family life and family rituals, and tried to be and expose us to good role models, and those role models were of two kinds: [There were] those who achieved in the outside world. We were blessed--I always felt so lucky to be who I was when I was with the convergence of great events and great leaders. I went to Spelman [College], and in chapel (which was compulsory) I got to hear Dr. King, Dr. [Benjamin] Mays, Dr. Howard Thurman, Dr. Mordecai Johnson, and all had a single message, which was the message of my parents: Those of you who are educated are obligated to give back and make the world better. (I opposed compulsory chapel when I was a student; the first thing I did when I became chair of the Spelman board was reinstitute compulsory chapel so that young people would have a chance to know what we adults felt was and is important.)

            So, outside role models--Daddy used to drive us anywhere we could hear great speakers to let us know the world was all ours. I remember in our church vestibule a lesson that made me understand I was part of a global community. He had a picture, which we looked at in church every Sunday or anytime we went in, of a very wealthy white family at a table laden with food and surrounded by groups of thousands of emaciated people, and the caption under this cartoon said: "Shall we say grace?" That struck me very much about the obligation of those who have much, sharing with those wherever they are in the world who have too little.

But the role models I remember equally well were those without much formal education or money but who taught by the special grace of their lives: Christ's and Tolstoy's and Gandhi's message that the kingdom of God is within. Every day I still try to be half as good as those ordinary people of grace who shared whatever they had with others.

I was 14 the night my daddy died with holes in his shoes. He had two children who'd graduated from college, another in college, another in divinity school, and a vision he was able to convey to me even dying in an ambulance--that I, a young black girl, could do and be anything, that race and gender are shadows, and that character, self-discipline, determination, attitude and service are the substance of life--I want to convey those same messages to you graduates today as you graduate into an ethically polluted nation and world, where instant sex without responsibility, instant gratification without effort, instant solutions without sacrifice, getting rather than giving and hoarding rather than sharing, are the too frequent signals of our mass media, popular culture and political life.

A standard of success for too many has become personal greed rather than common good; the standard for striving and achievement has become getting by rather than making an extra effort or helping somebody else. Truth-telling and moral example have become devalued commodities, and nowhere is the paralysis of public and private conscience more evident than in the neglect and abandonment of millions of our children, whose futures will determine our nation's ability to compete and lead in the new era and in the globalizing world.

I agree with Dietrich Bonhoffer, the great German theologian who died opposing Hitler's Holocaust, who said the test of the morality of a society is how it treats its children. America flunks Bonhoffer's test every minute of every day. Every nine seconds of the school day, one of our children drops out. It's a recipe for national disaster. Every 35 seconds as we sit here, a child will be neglected or abused. Every 36 seconds in the richest nation on earth, we let a child be born into poverty, the majority of their families working and playing by the rules but can't escape poverty. We lead the world in health technology yet every 42 seconds a baby is born without health insurance. And every minute a teenager or child has a child. We could fill up the city of Atlanta each year with the number of babies born to teen mothers. We can do better. We've got to do better.

I believe we've lost our sense of what is important as a people. Too many of our young people of all races and classes are growing up unable to handle life in hard places, without hope and without steady compasses to navigate a world that is reinventing itself at an unpredictable pace both technologically and politically. My generation learned that to accomplish anything we had to get off the dime; your generation must learn to get off the paradigm, over and over, and to be flexible, quick and smart about it.

Despite all the dazzling change, I do believe the enduring values of my childhood still pertain. I agree with Archibald MacLeish, the poet, that there is only one thing more powerful than learning from experience, and that is not learning from experience.

I always find that I can convey to my own children, and I share that from a book I wrote to my own three sons after they were graduating from college and high school--I wanted to be clear about the message--and I want to share a few of the lessons I gave to them, which became The Measure of Our Success .

There is no free lunch in life. That's the first lesson. Don't any of you ever feel entitled to anything you didn't sweat and struggle for. We need to help our nation understand that it's not entitled to world leadership based on the past, on what we say, rather than how well we perform and meet changing world needs.

For those among you who are African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American or people of color, I want you to remember you can never take anything for granted in America, even with an Emory degree, and you better not start now, as racial tolerance resurges over our land. It's wrapped up in new euphemisms and better etiquette, but as Frederick Douglass warned, it's the same old snake. You've got to be vigilant.

And for those young people who feel entitled to leadership, who happen to be white by accident of birth, I want to remind you that the world you face is already two-thirds non-white and poor, and that our nation, like California, is becoming a mosaic of greater diversity, and we're going to have to all understand it and respect it and work with it. I hope you will really begin to be a vessel of mutual respect, of effort, not taking anything for granted.

Your Emory degree may get you in the door, but it won't get you to the top of the career ladder or keep you there; you got to work your way up continuously. I know you will always do your homework and pay attention to detail. Take pride in your work, take the initiative in creating your own opportunity, and don't wait around for other people to discover you or do you a favor. Don't assume a door is closed; push on it. Don't assume if it was closed yesterday that it is closed today; push on it again. And don't ever stop learning and improving your mind, for if you do, you and America are going to be left behind. Keep at it. Keep working. Keep learning. Keep struggling.

Second, set thoughtful goals and work quietly and systematically toward them. Don't feel you have to talk if you don't have anything important to say. Resist quick-fix, simplistic answers and easy gains. They often disappear just as quickly as they come. So many of us talk big and act small. So often we get bogged down in our own ego needs and lose sight of deeper needs. It's OK to feel important if it's not at the expense of doing imporant deeds. Even if you don't get the credit--I learned early on in Washington that if you do the work and let other people take the credit, you can go a very long way--you know what you do. The Lord knows what you do. And that's all that should matter.

Third lesson is to assign yourself. Daddy used to run us wild. He couldn't stand to see us idle. Every day when we'd come home, he'd say, "Did the teacher give you homework?" If we said no, he'd say, "Well, assign yourself some." I hope you won't do just as little as you can to get by. Don't be a political bystander and grumbler. If you see a need, don't ask, "Why doesn't somebody do something." Ask, "Why don't I do something?" Hard work, initiative and persistance are still the magic carpets of success.

Fourth, I hope you'll never work just for money. Money alone won't save your soul or build a decent family or help you sleep at night. We're the richest nation on earth with the highest incarceration rate in the world and among the highest drug-addiction and child poverty rates in the world. Children are the poorest groups of Americans; no other wealthy industrialized nation lets so many of its children be poor.

            Don't ever confuse wealth or fame with character, and don't tolerate or condone moral corruption, whether it's found in high or low places, whatever its color or class. It's not OK to push or use drugs, even if you think everyone you know is doing it. It's not OK to lie or cheat; be honest, and demand that those who represent you be honest.

            Don't confuse morality with legality. Dr. King once noted that everything Hitler did in Nazi Germany was legal, but it wasn't right. Don't give anybody else the proxy for your conscience. Don't be afraid of speaking truth to power or of exercising your right as a citizen. If you don't want to be criticized, don't say anything, don't do anything and don't be anything.

            Don't be afraid of failing. It's the way you learn to do things; it's the scientific method of trial and error. It doesn't matter how many times you fall down; what matters is how many times you get up. Don't wait for anybody to come along and get something done; it's always a few people who get things done and keep things going. This country right now desperately needs more wise and courageous shepherds, and fewer sheep, who don't borrow from integrity to fund political and economic expedience.

            Take your career seriously, but take parenting and family life equally seriously and insist that those you work for and who represent you do so too. I hope that as daughters and sons you will share in the responsibilites in your lives and your families, and stress family rituals and be good moral examples for children. If you cut corners, they will too; if you lie, they will too. If you spend all your money on yourself and tithe no portion of it to your college, churches, synagogues, mosques and civic causes, they won't either.

If you tell [or] snicker at racial and gender jokes, or anything intended to demean another person, another generation will pass on the poison my generation still has not had the courage to snuff out. Please don't laugh at, tell or tolerate racial, ethnic, religious or gender slurs, or any practices that tend to demean another human being. Walk away from them, stare them down, make them unacceptable in your presence.

Last two: Listen for the sound of the genuine within you. Howard Thurman spoke at Spelman College's chapel and talked about how there are so many noises in our lives, but something in every one of us waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in ourselves. He said it is the only true guide we will ever have, and if you can't hear it, you will spend your days on the strings someone else pulls. Learn to be quiet enough to hear the sound of the genuine within yourself so that you can hear it within other people.

Never think life is not worth living or that you cannot make a difference. Never give up. I don't care how hard it gets--and it's going to get very hard after you leave Emory and it's going to get hard when you may not even expect it. But there's an old proverb that says: When you get to your wit's end, that's where God lives. Harriet Beecher Stowe said that when you get into a tight place and everything goes against you until it seems you can't hang on for another minute, never give up then, for that is just the place and the time that the tide will turn. You hang on with life after you leave Emory, through thick and thin, and always realize you can make a difference.

My role model, one of them, was a brilliant but illiterate slave woman who never gave up speaking out against slavery and second-class treatment of women during slavery even though it was an impossible chore. I remember her on days when I'm discouraged. One day, she was speaking against slavery and got heckled by an old white man who stood up in the audience and said, "Oh slave woman, I don't care no more about your anti-slavery talk than for an old flea bite." And she snapped back, "That's all right. The Lord willing, I'm gonna keep you scratching."

When we face such huge problems of war, gaps between rich and poor, greed, wastefulness in our national resources, we can all remember that we don't have to make big changes--though we do--we can be strategic fleas. Enough fleas biting strategically can make very big dogs uncomfortable. I hope that all of you who are concerned about suffering of children, the absence of health care and decent education, will become fleas for justice for children with your votes, e-mails and letters. Those things matter. Help us build a movement that makes America worthy of its children and protects its children and its poor and its values.

Giving Shel Silverstein, the children's book writer, the last word. He said: Listen to the mustn'ts, child, listen to the don'ts. Listen to the shouldn'ts, the impossibles, the won'ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me: Anything can happen, child, anything can be. If you dream it, if you believe in it, if you have faith in it, if you struggle for it, if you never give up, and we will never give up until America takes care of every one of its sacred children. Godspeed to you.