From My Generation to Yours
Commencement speech made to the graduating Class of 1988.
May 17, 1989
Commencements are a time when generations gently collide, and we momentarily come together to celebrate and share the powerful elixir of what you represent and that is, simply, the notion that today all things are possible. Donald Finkel, who tried to pound into us the secrets of modern poetry, would sometimes throw up his hands in frustration and say, "The first line! The answer is in the first line!" It was solid advice and therefore if you hear nothing else I say, hear this: You are a privileged generation, unique in the history of the world. You hold within your hands the power to save, to destroy the human race, or to genetically alter it - and perhaps the first generation in many years to enter a world not dominated by cold war. You are privileged and very smart, but you are likely ignorant of what will befall you and you must learn quickly or the moment will be lost.
Twenty-eight years ago I sat where you are, but I cannot come close to you today. We are separated by chasms of age, experience and race. But perhaps I can reach hailing distance to hurl some history and some notions at you that may prove helpful in your journey. I did not know it then, in May 1961, but my generation was to fight three grand battles. We would win two, but lose the third. You enjoy the benefits of our victories and suffer the consequences of our defeats.
In 1961, America was a landscape with a calm surface but with a flawed moral center. It was a time when shows like Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver and I Love Lucy generated more discussion than the barbaric system of institutionalized and de facto racism that dominated this country. Racism was as far off as the Freedom Rides and Little Rock, and as close as the segregated restaurants that would not serve us just a few hundred feet from this spot.
So we watched and saw a movement. It began in the Deep South, fired largely by unlettered, simple people who said, "No more." But it was their courage and their intelligence that offered us an option to do something. What we did together was to create a massive force that took on a life of its own. It was an unparalleled, powerful coalition linking government, churches, activists, the law, media and just plain folks.
It was many things. It was America being dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th Century. IT was a miracle - not once over the 10 early tumultuous years can you find a documented case of a black killing a white in civil rights demonstrations. It was the perfect working example of a democracy attempting to cleanse itself.
It was a time that taught us many powerful lessons, good and bad, that may stand you in good stead. We saw the power of coalitions and the fact that they have a half-life. Black and Jewish organizations could come together for shared objectives, but we also learned they could come apart - and be reformed. We saw the need for anchoring institutions - the churches and other organizations that gave base to the activists. We came to know the need for vanguard movements - some student-driven, like SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] , others emerging directly out of the cities, like the Black Panthers - and we watched the flash across our lives, changing them forever. There is a powerful role for such phenomena and we best learn to recognize them when they come again. There was the irony of our victory when, in achieving our goal to integrate, we lost a large part of the dearly earned integrity of our communities. Those who could, now moved on and would leave others more vulnerable.
We also learned that the then-new instrument of television was to be a powerful force in our lives. It was television that could keep people alive in the Deep South and help form a national constituency for the movement and, simultaneously, grow increasingly ravenous for the graphic violence the movement sometimes precipitated - an appetite that grew and was fed by the riots in the North and then the violence of Vietnam. TV, the single most powerful communication link between the races, chose to ignore the harder stories of the making of citizens.
The events at the bridge at Selma marked our first victory - and the beginning of the end. We had dismantled in 10 short years - and eye blink in historic time - a system of apartheid that had prospered for centuries. And in a sense one could make the argument, as outrageous as it would be for a people who had been here from the beginning and whose labor had been used to create the great American fortunes, you could still make the argument that we were immigrants in our own land, free for the first time to compete without the shackles of legalized segregation. It was a moment of exuberance and promise - not unlike today - and it was lost.
The awful war, Vietnam, pulled away the resources, it pulled away the cadre of leadership that had been formed that was ready to assault the real problems of economic and educational inequality. It drained our spirits. We regrouped and went on to fight and win a monumental battle to end a bad war, but our chance to transform this society into one based on true equity was lost for the moment and for us. We entered a different time.
Six weeks ago, flying back from the West Coast at 35,000 feet somewhere over the desolation of Utah, the unthinkable happened. The man in front of me was caught in a seizure and collapsed forward in his seat, unconscious and barely breathing. For a moment we were all stunned, but the crew responded well. They made him as comfortable as possible. Passengers came forward to help, we diverted to Stapleton, but for an hour we were all focused on that man because we were him. We were, in a real sense, a community, a community formed in crisis. Later, after we had dropped him off and had resumed our eastward journey, it came to me that in the late 1960's America had become a land driven by crisis and not a community by design.
America in the late '60's and '70's seemingly ricocheted among riots and rebellions, Northern resistance to integration, black power and Black Panthers. You can think of it as random, but it was gut-level logical if you ask the right question. At Seder supper last month, as I was drifting off, I awoke at a powerful line from the ritual: "What does it mean to go from slavery to freedom?" That is what was logically going on in this country than and continues today. It was black Americans transforming ourselves from the mental baggage of segregation. And we largely succeeded with people of advantage, but all around many were pleading for those left behind. We warned of consequences if something were not done to provide access and the promise of possibility. But the crisis went largely unheeded and our failure as a country has become your burden.
Many times on this quad I sat and read - among my favorites the great works of science fiction writers like Bradbury and Heinlein - and I remember one story of a brilliant scientist who invented an extraordinary sensitive hearing device. Upon activating it, he became aware of terrible screams of agony and pain, and having failed to find any human tragedy that would explain such terror he slowly came to the recognition that he was hearing the sounds of someone cutting the grass.
Hearing pain requires you to listen. I hear screams that you do not. The screams of young black men, young American who are dying, victims of concentration camps of the mind and spirit that leave them destroyed or as destroyers. Young men are different from the rest of us in that they really believe that they cannot be hurt, warriors who are the first to go enthusiastically to wars that are most often arranged for them by older men.
But their value to us is limited now for there is no proper battlefield for them to die on. We shut our ears because they frighten us, they seem unreachable, to some unworthy. But make no mistake, they are us - you and me. Because of our unique relationship to this society, African-Americans have often taken the blows first and our young men are our most vulnerable. The fog of racism prevents the obvious, but if we continue to allow our world to split into those who have more than enough and those who have too little, these young men will be long forgotten as the first casualties in the coming war, the war at home. This nation cannot survive a morality that allows us to spend $21 billion on soft drinks and $80 billion on jewelry and $100 billion on the crimes of the savings and loan fiasco and then cry poor to the poor.
But there are more pressing reasons to do something. America is changing and our place in the world is no longer the same. Consider that Europe may integrate its 1000-year-old conflicts into a powerful alliance and the Soviets empower new generations with freedom never before tasted. Travel to the Pacific Rim and come to understand that the 21st century is more likely theirs than ours if we do not act. Come to realize that white Americans are a minority in many of our largest cities - Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco. This is not something to be afraid of, but to welcome. The phenomenon I call "Japanese envy" fails to understand the true power of the American experience - and that is simply that diversity has a power far beyond any single nation, as we have in the past, in the fractious, boisterous, steaming cities of African, Hispanic, Asian, and white Americans. Reject the Wall Street notion of the survival of the fittest and understand the basic biological fact that the diverse species survives long after the single strain is gone.
I would leave you with these thoughts and my own personal compass that I use to test the rightness of my television programming. Like any good compass it has four points, but mine are truth, power, media, and history. Truth is not so difficult. What is right, just and fair is most clear once you clean away the fog. Power is a hidden word in our society, absolutely central and largely unmentioned. The transfers of power in a world of limits will tell you more often than not what has happened. Power concedes nothing without a demand - it never has, it never will, says Frederick Douglas. And think of history as the ancients did. Think of it as knowledge rushing away from us at the same time the future rushes in. Logic dictates that you try and hold on to as much as possible to understand what is to come.
Use this, them, to watch leadership today as they promise us safety if we will only spend more for prisons, judges and police. How many times have you seen on national television in recent weeks a story of gangs? The media drums begin to beat unthinkingly to the tune of big stories. But think. Look to the history and the truth. As surely as I stand here I know that no people will support a police force that is not largely accountable to them. Any plan must start there. As surely as I stand here I know that people without possibilities are dangerous people. As surely as I stand here I know we cannot build enough prisons, hold enough trials to save ourselves unless we reach to fight the third grand battle for equity. Walk the streets of the Philippines or of Brazil and watch how the growing disparity between rich and poor imprisons first the rich and then their souls.
Look only to China or to our own history to see how quickly a people can be turned. You need only become true citizens. The responsible parties of our society are those who understand as did Martin Buber that responsibility takes two things: a sense of obligation and the ability to act. You can have both. And then turn away from our time of small and shriveled dreams of things and give us a vision of a world as we would have it, for it is only in shared dreaming that we become responsible for changing it.
Know, with Aristotle, that hope is a waking dream. And finally, step forward to lead us all and know with Walter Lippmann the simple truth that the genius of true leadership is the ability to leave behind situations that can be solved, not with the grace of genius but with common sense.
It is your battle to win, go with Godspeed and our love. It is how you will be judged.