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2004 Spring Commencement Address
L. Douglas Wilder

Thank you very much President Crow for the very kind and warm introduction. To the Board of Regents, the administration, faculty, parents and friends, and, especially, to the graduating class of 2004, congratulations – heartiest congratulations.

I remember some commencements of my own and some I’ll never forget.

Not for what the speakers had to say, but for how eternally long it took them to say it. And I certainly don’t want you to remember me that way.

I am more than pleased to be able to participate in this commencement of this great university.

Your president, Dr. Michael Crow, has done a fantastic job during his tenure.

His vision and commitment, combined with matchless natural energy, will show that this university's star is still in ascendancy. I had occasion to meet with him earlier this year when we were attending a symposium at the University of Texas in Austin, where we both participated in speaking about diversity.

The great philosopher Aristotle said if all men were friends there would be no need for justice.

How true.

But we know that all men are not friends. And justice unfortunately has kept so busy sometimes it never really gets around to some people, it seems.

Events around the world and here at home are also reminders of how unsettling things really can be. This nation emerged from two world wars victoriously, through the great sacrifices by some and with great loss of human life and untold casualties.

We in this nation fought and saved the cause of freedom in South Korea and stand ready to defend her again. We here in this nation staved off the tide of communism and freed Europe from Soviet domination. We thwarted the advances of Saddam Hussein on Kuwait as well as bordering Arab states in the gulf.

We heeded the call to cease the butchering in Bosnia by Milosevic.

We are called on time and time again in all quarters of the planet to aid and to assist in the cause of government and justice.

We are in Afghanistan now in an effort to rid the world of the terrorist threats of the Al Qaida and Osama Bin Laden, and we are once again in Iraq destroying the last vestiges of the Saddam Hussein domination.

It never seems to end. Many in this nation, however, raise questions as to whether we have seriously addressed the ills affecting many of our own.

In a true democracy issues never fade away.

They may linger and hang around, but the problems that people face in their everyday lives can't be resolved in one fell swoop.

We must make certain that people don't lose sight of things that need to be done, and, if we're lucky, we make some progress and then we pass on the torch to someone else who cares enough to keep trying.

If we fail, we hope that someone remembers our efforts and gives them another try.

But make no mistake, problems just don't vanish and disappear.

Times never change.

People change.

Times remain the same.

There’s still 24 hours in the day, 12 months in the year, 60 minutes to an hour.

That doesn’t change!

People change.

And who are we talking about? You and me.

All of the progress that we've made and witnessed in our lifetimes in science,

technology, the law, human rights, all came as a result of the dogged determination of some with a belief that day by day we can and we must make the world a better place.

Life in America and indeed the world took on a new meaning on 11 September 2001.

We were made to feel vulnerable, more vulnerable, in terms of our own personal security, as well as having our concerns exacerbated about the threat to the American political ideals and American values.  And that there are those who wish America harm is no question.

In the weeks following 9/11, the outpouring of American citizens indicated the potential for a democratic renewal. In public opinion polls, letters to the editors of the country's newspapers, college teach-ins on Islam and on anti-American feelings in the world and memorial services and prayer meetings, citizen to citizen conversations in coffee shops, Barber shops and most of all in volunteer efforts to help the attacks victims and their families, Americans have demonstrated a desire to understand the situation that the country faced and to act upon it.

We’ve been put on yellow and orange alerts, but constantly told to go back to our normal lives and to leave the war on terrorism to those who know best.

Two years later, one of the most frightening indicators remains that many Americans have a willingness to accept this recognition and slip back into a passive complacency.

That is directly contrary to the ideal of a democratic citizenry.

No one would disagree that the international security environment in which we live has changed dramatically, and even before the 9/11 attacks by the terrorists, the end of the cold war had altered the nature of how the American nation interacted with the rest of the world and what continues to be at stake as we speak is the preservation of America's democratic values.

A proper education should stress who we are as a nation and what we are as a people, and it should not just be the job of the educator, but rather that of the community.

We must stress that secrecy, centralization, repression and distortion in government only impede our ability to respond effectively to our security needs.

The knowledge and wisdom of all Americans will be needed to find the best ways to address the security concerns of today's worlds, and those concerns indeed are your concerns.

And it is a very difficult job, very difficult indeed, because in many instances there is no help.

The media is more concerned with which celebrity got divorced or who didn't, who has been convicted and who is going to jail, or who isn’t, and who has survived on some make-believe fantasy contrived to resemble real life situations.

Today we’ve come a long way from the days when the federal and state governments sponsored the injustices of social discrimination and segregation.

But the problem of race, as Dr. W.E. DeBois predicted, is still at the forefront of American life.

More than ever we need to value the diversity within the one race that exists on planet earth, and that is the human race.  And that, too, is your challenge.

I was so pleased yesterday to have an occasion to meet and talk with some of ASU’s honors students.

They asked me some tough questions.

That's what it’s about, the tough questions.

If I don't have the answers, I need to find them.

I was so impressed because they recognize that they have a role to play.

They want to know is there room for them.

I don't mind telling you, oh, yes, they're leaders now, because, if qualified men and women sit back and wait for the party leaders, the pundits and the self-appointed gurus to hand them the baton, they've got a long wait coming.

They’ll never give it up.

They’ll never pass it to you.

Take the leadership.

Tell them, “move over, move aside, I need it and I'm ready to participate in helping make this country great as I see it and I will work with you to do it but don't count me out. I'll be involved.”

Public service is the rent you pay for your room here on earth. And one doesn't have to be a revolutionary to want the good life shared by others to be shared by him and his or her family.

All one should want is an equal chance to be equal.

All anyone should ask is that anyone with ability and perseverance get a chance to walk through the door of success.

We're celebrating this year the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

No more effective or eloquent a spokesperson for the cause of equality and justice in America existed than that of Thurgood Marshall.

He was the lead counsel in the Brown versus Board of Education case decided some 50 years ago this Monday, and I intend to be at Howard university, his alma mater, where we will participate in recounting those years.

That year, the nation witnessed the outlawing of separate but equal school desegregation, and yet, as we know, Mr. Marshall became the first African-American to serve as a justice on that Supreme Court.

I'm reminded of something he said, speaking from a wheelchair on July 4th on the conditions of America in 1992. This is what he said, because this was his challenge:

“I wish I could say that racism and prejudice were only distant memories and that liberty and justice were just around the bend. I wish I could say that America had come to appreciate diversity and see and accept similarity. But as I look around, I see a nation of division of Afro and white, indigenous and immigrant, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, even many educated whites and successful Negros have given up on integration and lost hope in equality. They see nothing in common except the need to flee as fast as they can from our inner cities. We cannot play ostrich. Democracy cannot flourish amid hate. Justice cannot take root amid rage. We must go against the prevailing wind. We must dissent from the indifference, we must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust. We must dissent from a government that has left its young without jobs, education or hope. We must dissent from the poverty of vision and the absence of moral leadership. We must dissent because America can do better. We must dissent because America must do better. The legal system can force open doors and sometimes even knock down walls, but it cannot build bridges. That job belongs to you and to me. We can run from each other, but we cannot escape each other. We will only attain freedom if we learn to appreciate what is different and muster courage to discover what is fundamentally the same. Take a chance. Won’t you? Knock down the fences that divide. Tear down the walls that imprison. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side.”

Those observations by Justice Marshall are as relevant today as they were in 1992. The challenge is ongoing.  Because he charges us all, every race, every religion, every creed, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, no one group can escape that challenge, nor should they.

The election of a president this November, new or incumbent, won’t eliminate the necessity for the American people, you and me, to take back our country, to take it back from those who seek to divide, rather than to unite.

To take it back from the special interest lobbyists, who ply their trade with their own brand of snake oil.

To take it back from the greed and the corruption that too often has invaded our corporate board rooms.

We must not be afraid to denounce the demagoguery of religious zealots who feed and prey upon prejudice and division, and we must take our streets back from the thugs and criminals who victimize those least able to protect themselves.

There were things that inhibited me from moving ahead in life. But I learned early on, because I learned the declaration of independence when I was a little boy, about five years old, and I asked my mother, ‘what do those words mean when it says that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights? What does that mean?’

She said, it means no one can take it away from you.

She told me that there was nothing that could stop me from being any of the things that I needed to be if I took the steps to do that.

That’s why, in this great nation of ours, I am hopeful for this generation. I know that history will record that no greater minds have existed ever than do exist today. That is why our challenge is great, but you can do it, and I have every confidence that you will do it.

God bless you and thank you for the occasion of being here.

Media Contact: Nancy Neff, ASU Public Affairs, 480-965-4836
May 13, 2004

































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