Prepared text of Vernon E. Jordan Jr.'s Baccalaureate address
Following is the prepared text of "Whom Shall I Send?" the 2015 Baccalaureate address by Vernon E. Jordan Jr., a civil rights leader, attorney and former adviser to President Bill Clinton.
President Hennessy, Dean Shaw, Vice Provost Elam … proud friends and family … bleary-eyed almost-graduates. Nobody informed me that I would have to follow the exquisite melodies of Talisman. That was incredible.
On a beautiful Sunday morning in June, 58 years ago, I sat as you sit today – anxious, excited and weary, waiting to be awarded my hard-earned degree. The speaker at my baccalaureate was perhaps one of the most prominent lawyers of the day. He rose and proceeded to deliver … the longest, most boring, most uninspiring address ever inflicted upon a graduating class. It was full of sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing.
So this morning, you have my deepest sympathy and empathy as you await my discourse. Because – believing as I do in equal opportunity – I plan to do to you the same thing my baccalaureate speaker did to me.
I am delighted to join you on this joyous occasion. I realize, however, that my presence here may be perplexing to some of you. Amidst the Buddhist prayer bells and the native American readings, the Japanese drums and the Judeo-Christian texts, you see before you the most un-holy creature on God's green earth: a Washington lawyer and a Wall Street banker.
The truth is, I almost took a godlier path. As a senior in college, I applied to several law schools and four seminaries. After graduation, I spent the summer of 1957 driving city buses in Chicago while I was trying to decide whether to spend my life at the altar or at the bar. And though I never ventured onto this quad under a full moon … I too discovered sin … and I liked it.
So I went to law school.
My presence in this pulpit is spiritual compensation for having chosen the law of man over the law of Moses. It is, for me, the intersection of what is and what might have been.
For all of you today, bright young students under a bright blue sky, there is no "what might have been." Here, at this bittersweet moment, you are alive to the opportunities of the world, poised on the precipice of possibility.
You won the Big Game … for four straight years. You did not just survive IHUM [Introduction to the Humanities] … you outlasted it. You belong to the best-educated, most digitally connected, most globally literate generation in history – and you are ready to go out and make your mark on a waiting world.
But before you leave this beautiful campus, it falls to me to speed you on your journey.
And so I want to begin with a story. It comes not from any holy book, but from a chapter in my own life, at a time when I was not far removed from my own commencement ceremony.
It was 1960, and I had just graduated from the Howard University Law School. I was home in Atlanta working as a law clerk for a prominent civil rights attorney. I had a wife and child and was making the princely sum of $35 a week.
In my first month on the job, we traveled to a small, rural Georgia town – Reidsville – to represent an 18-year-old black man who had been arrested, arraigned, indicted, tried, convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair all within 48 hours.
The proceedings were held in the segregated courthouse of Tattnall County. We three NAACP lawyers slept in the nearest colored motel 30 miles away. Each day, we appeared in court to plead our client's case. Each day at lunch, the white lawyers and court officials would go across the town square to the white-only café. And we black lawyers would go to the local grocery store, order sliced baloney, a loaf of bread, a jar of mustard, a Coca-Cola, and a Baby Ruth, which we would eat in our car parked on the courthouse square.
On the third day of the trial, a black woman sitting in the "colored" section upstairs dropped a book, which got my attention. She beckoned me to the vestibule of the courthouse. She whispered, "We've been watching you lawyers eat bologna sandwiches for two days now. Don't eat today, please. After court, come to my home for lunch."
When we arrived at her home, we saw a beautiful sight. A table set for royalty. Her best silver, china and crystal, a lace tablecloth, beautifully folded white cloth napkins, and the most exquisite Southern cuisine I've ever eaten. Some 10 black women and their husbands joined hands with us as our hostess's husband said grace.
I shall never forget one sentence in that prayer: "Lord, way down here in Tattnall County we can't join the NAACP, but thanks to your bountiful blessings, we can feed the NAACP lawyers."
In the intervening years, I have been privileged to advise presidents and CEOs, and negotiate national and international transactions. For most of that I was more than adequately compensated. But nothing, nothing compares to the compensation I received from those humble, kind, generous, black people in Tattnall County in the summer of 1960 – the best legal fee of my career.
Why do I tell you that story?
I tell it, first, because you are living in a place, and graduating from a school, where there is not just the possibility – but almost the expectation – of great financial gain. Indeed, companies founded by graduates of this great school generate $2.7 trillion annually, which would be the 10th-largest economy in the world.
The education you have received here is a mighty lever. A Stanford graduate today is a very hot commodity – even the so-called "fuzzies" among you can expect to be snapped up by a startup. And I understand the necessity of using that lever to lift the burden of debt that achievement of this degree may have required.
However, if the only rewards you seek are financial, the full majesty of your Stanford degree will elude you. So whether you start a company, or practice law, or become a doctor, or make incredible art, it is my genuine hope that each one of you will come to understand that we live in a world that calls out for you to realize your talents – not just for your own gain, but to lift up those in whose shoes, but for the grace of God, you might have been walking.
The second reason I share this story with you is because no society that leaves out a significant percentage of its people can long endure.
It would be comforting to think that my experiences are uniquely of my generation and those that came before. But the pernicious dynamics of history do not disappear that neatly.
Injustice, in our country, in this day, is less visible than it was when I sat where you are sitting.
Injustice today does not look like men, women and children turned upon with dogs and fire hoses.
Injustice today does not take the form of poll taxes and literacy tests.
But injustice is alive and well in America. That is the cry welling up from Sanford, Florida, to Ferguson, Missouri, to North Charleston, South Carolina, to Staten Island, New York. It grows louder and louder as Baltimore and Cleveland simmer. It becomes all the more urgent as activists shut down the 101 highway … as students obstruct bicycle traffic at the "Circle of Death" to stop this seemingly endless cycle of death.
At the beginning of the 20th century, W. E. B. Du Bois, the preeminent black scholar of his generation, looked at America and declared that "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line." Fifteen years into the 21st century, I say that the problem of America in the 21st century remains the problem of the color line.
Yes, that color line faded when Barack Obama raised his right hand on the steps of the Capitol.
But the color line sharpens when Jim Crow is reborn, not just in the South, but across America, as a surge of new voter identification laws are enacted by the states.
The color line fades when we see black and female CEOs managing America's top companies.
At the same time, the color line sharpens when we see the toll that poverty and hunger and joblessness and hopelessness are having on too many Americans – black and white.
The color line sharpens when those sworn to protect our communities too often have little connection – or outright contempt – for those communities. When we see that more black men are incarcerated, on probation, or on parole today than were enslaved on the eve of the Civil War.
And it saddens me to say that here, in this valley of silicon and success, the color line has gone online.
The color line persists when black and Latino workers make up just 3 to 4 percent of Silicon Valley's technology workforce but comprise 41 percent of Silicon Valley's security guards, 72 percent of its janitorial staff, and 76 percent of its groundskeepers.
The color line persists, as Van Jones writes, "when we see a young black man in a hoodie, [and] think of Trayvon Martin, but not Mark Zuckerberg."
The color line persists – and is compounded by the gender line – when Twitter has three times as many people named "Peter" on its board as it does women.
Thanks to the thousands of men and women who suffered beatings and bombings with quiet dignity and resolve, we have knocked down what Martin Luther King Jr. called "the sagging walls of segregation." What we are dealing with now – what defines the color line in the 21st century – is the rubble. Less imposing, perhaps, but no less critical to clear away. And for those of you who witnessed the demolition of Meyer Library, you will understand that tearing down the walls takes a matter of days, but clearing the debris takes far, far longer.
As Martin Luther King Jr. put it at this very university not 50 years ago:
It's more difficult today because we are struggling now for genuine equality. It's much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job. It's much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality.
But that is the challenge at hand.
For all of the new technologies being developed, I believe the solution – at its core – is not new. The solution is the tough task of getting people registered and out to vote and informed on the issues. It is the slow but necessary process of changing corporate cultures, so that a brother can be a "brogrammer," and a "brogrammer" can be a "sister-grammer." It is the daunting project of shaping institutions that live up to our ideals and ensuring that the winds of freedom truly continue to blow. That is the ultimate test. And that responsibility does not rest on anybody but ourselves.
Lest you think differently, this fight is your fight too. It is not confined to the "diaspora" email list. It affects all of us – even those whose skin may not be dark, even those who live in quiet suburbs far from the cities going up in flames.
You are graduating from what the New York Times calls "America's 'it' school," much to the chagrin of the "Stanford of the East." You have the skills and the knowledge to touch lives, the drive to make a difference – and that is why we need your help.
So I come today to ask you to join this great struggle.
I come today to ask, as did Isaiah: "Who will go, and whom shall we send?" and I pray that your answer is: "Here am I. Send me."
Send me to help clear the rubble of racism still strewn across this country.
Send me to be one of the bulldozers on behalf of equality and cleanup crews against injustice.
Send me to "disrupt" injustice.
Send me to "hack" bias and bigotry.
Send me to lean in.
I urge you to embrace this responsibility – this obligation – to be disturbers of the unjust peace.
And do it, as it has always been done, through the slow, steady, tedious process of changing hearts and minds – one person, one organization, one institution – at a time.
Do it until this valley and every valley shall be raised up, and every mountain shall be made low, and the crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.
I offer you one final illustration, as proof of my faith in the power of individuals – and nations – to transform.
In May 1980, I was shot in the back with a .30-06 hunting rifle by a white supremacist in Fort Wayne, Indiana. And when I came out of the operating room after the surgery that saved my life, one of the many wires and telegrams that came was from Montgomery, Alabama.
It read: "I was shocked and saddened to learn of your injury. I am praying for your complete recovery and am thankful that your life was spared."
That wire was signed "George C. Wallace, governor of Alabama."
Now, I fought Governor Wallace and what he stood for from the day he defied the law and morality by trying to deny black people their rights under the Constitution.
But I appreciated that wire. It said to me that political differences must be subordinated to common humanity. It said to me that we are all human beings who have to reach out to each other.
The story doesn't end there. A year later, I went to Montgomery to celebrate the retirement of the civil rights champion E. D. Nixon. Five minutes before the program started, state troopers wheeled Governor George Wallace into the George Washington Carver High School Auditorium. At the end of the program, Governor Wallace had the state troopers put his wheelchair up on the stage and rolled him toward me.
We shook hands. The governor said, "Vernon, you got my telegram, you said so in the speech." And I said, "It was the first one that I read."
He said, "Vernon, you were shot worse than me. But I hear you still play golf and tennis, and here I am in this damn wheelchair."
And then he said, "Will you do something for me." "What is it, Governor?" I answered.
And George C. Wallace – the man who proclaimed "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" – said to me, "Vernon, will you reach down and hug me?"
That's the absolute, God's-honest truth. The villain of Selma, a mean, old racist who once stood in the schoolhouse door to keep black people out, could no longer stand at all. Yet he wished he could stand – not to set himself defiantly athwart history – but rather to embrace me as a brother.
Yes, Stanford Class of 2015, change is possible. I've seen it. I've lived it. I've benefited from it. And with your help, we can do it again.
So wherever the cry goes out, asking – pleading – "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?" you will be there to answer, calling upon all the knowledge and understanding developed at this great university. And you will turn that question mark into an exclamation point by responding, "Yes, there is balm in Gilead. There is a physician there."
That is your charge to keep, your calling to fulfill, your rendezvous with destiny.
And to that end, may you neither stumble, nor falter – rather may you mount up with wings as eagles, may you run and not be weary, may you walk together, children, and not be faint.