Morehouse revised

This past Sunday at Morehouse College President Biden gave a campaign speech in the guise of a commencement address. In substance Biden’s speech was a demagogic disgrace. What would an honest address have sounded like? Speaking in my own voice, I think it would have sounded about like this.

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I am grateful for the privilege of speaking to you this afternoon. Morehouse is our only historically black private liberal arts college for men. Not all distinctions based on immutable characteristics are invidious. Morehouse has the courage to stand apart. There is a lesson there.

Today is a day that should fill you with gratitude — to parents, to family, to teachers, to all those who have helped you reach this day. I hope you will thank all those who are still around for you to thank.

I know you are grateful for your education. It will serve you well in a time of unrivaled and unlimited opportunity. You are on your way to acquiring the skills and the knowledge that you need to succeed in the life and the work that you choose.

And I hope that you will continue to think frequently about the gratitude you owe to others after today. Along with your education, it is a habit that will serve you well. Try to avoid thinking of yourself as a victim. It is a crippling attitude and debilitating habit.

As you move on to pursue your further education and to make a living in the world that awaits you, you are likely to find teachers, co-workers, and employers who will want you to succeed and will take pride in your success. Today you leave Morehouse behind, but you will continue to find friends and supporters in seemingly unlikely places. Morehouse has prepared you to hone the skills that will vindicate their best wishes for you.

There is no door that is closed to you by law or custom. Every door you seek to enter is open to you.

In part that is because of the life work of Morehouse’s most illustrious alumnus. I speak of course of Martin Luther King, Jr. King was only 15 when he matriculated at Morehouse. He attended the college from the age of 15 to 19.

A product of the segregated education of his time and place, he seems not to have been well prepared for Morehouse. He was an average student here. He began to come into his own and find his calling at Crozer Theological Seminary and in graduate school at Boston University. I’m sure you are familiar with his work as a pastor and as leader of the civil rights movement that culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

King’s greatest accomplishment, however, was changing hearts and minds. He exhorted Americans to live up to the American creed found in the Declaration of Independence — the proposition that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This exhortation was the essence of his inspirational speech at the Civil Rights March of 1963.

By the power of his leadership and example, he persuaded his fellow Americans that it was wrong to treat people differently because of the color of their skin. Like the horns at the biblical battle of Jericho, King’s voice and words were a mighty instrument that caused the walls to come crashing down.

King was of course assassinated in 1968 at the age of 39. It is humbling to recall how much he accomplished in so short a time.

He was not a perfect man. He was a flawed man. And yet he was a great man. Despite his flaws, he somehow had the strength of character to bear what must have felt like the weight of the world on his shoulders.

His greatness comes into sharper focus when we consider the unbelievable pressures he withstood. Those pressures came from the government — from the FBI — with the knowledge and approval of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, President John Kennedy, and President Lyndon Johnson.

Under Director J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI abused its authority to surveil, to hound, and to humiliate King. Indeed, it tried to break him — and it came close to doing so. The torment inflicted by the FBI on King took a brutal toll on him personally.

I’m sure you are familiar with the story and yet I want to take the liberty of recommending a book to your attention on the subject. I’m thinking of The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr., by David Garrow, published in 1981. Forty years later, the history that Garrow unearthed and documented is no longer shocking, but it remains a warning of permanent relevance.

The abuse of government authority is far from ancient history. As we saw in 2016 and after, the FBI continues to act as a law unto itself with the blessing of the powers that be. Director James Comey purported to embody virtue and rectitude. He continues to keep up the act. And yet, like J. Edgar Hoover, he proved to be a two-faced reprobate leading an organization out of control. Comey and the institution he led stand as a stark reminder of the need for eternal vigilance and limited government power.

Men of Morehouse, you step out into the world prepared to face its challenges. There is less systemic racism confronting you than ever before in American history. Colleagues and employers will bend over backward to help you achieve your personal and professional goals.

I don’t need to counsel you to put yourself in the place of those with whom you deal along the way. You know you will likely be doing the right thing if you treat others the way would want to be treated. If I were in your place now, I would want me to stop talking. Let me be the first to congratulate you on your Morehouse degree.

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