May 2017 Graduation Address by Mr. John B. King
Thank you for the kind introduction and for inviting me to The University of Memphis. To President Rudd, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, and staff, I am honored and humbled to celebrate this momentous occasion with you. To the parents, spouses, families, mentors, and friends who have supported this class on their journey to this moment—thank you. The delight in this day also belongs to you. And, most importantly, to the Class of 2017—to the Tigers—congratulations!
Each of you has worked hard to earn the distinction of graduate from The U of M.
You balanced challenging classes with clubs, sports, and Greek life. You helped lift up groundbreaking research while you held down one or two jobs. You "Instagram-ed" every single one of the 100 tiger sculptures on campus and around town. You gained lifelong friends while singing bad karaoke and surviving on surprisingly good barbequed tofu. You marched in the band and you marched in the streets for causes you believe in. And you discovered your mettle in Memphis.
As you prepare to graduate, you may have concerns about the state of our nation and our world.
We see conflict, climate change, and divisive politics in America and around the globe. We see disparities in opportunity that—in our nation—often are drawn along lines of race, class, and gender. And in too many communities we see growing inequality and folks directing their frustration at the "other": at immigrants or people who practice a different faith.
But on this day, as we celebrate all you have achieved, we must remind ourselves of all that is possible, and embrace the challenge of making our nation and world better for all.
Indeed, the promise of America is that through hard work and perseverance everyone can lead a thriving life.
Nancy Davis, who is graduating today, embodies this ideal.
Nancy embarked on her college journey in 1965, earning her associate's degree. She became a flight attendant, got married, and started a family; and she never stopped pursuing her dream to earn a bachelor's degree.
Nancy attended four colleges as her husband's job in the Air Force took the family all over the country. Eventually, Nancy had to put her own college dreams on hold so she and her husband could put their kids through school. Finally, Nancy was one semester away from earning her bachelor's degree. But that was when Nancy's husband suffered a debilitating stroke, and she had to become a full-time caregiver. Thankfully, Nancy's husband pulled through, and thanks to the Finish Line program here at the U of M, Nancy, at the age of 71, has earned that hard-fought bachelor's degree.
That is the promise of America—that with grit and dedication, all of us can achieve our dreams.
Our nation's history is the story of that promise being made more real—in fits and starts—for an ever widening circle of Americans.
From the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, from women's suffrage to the continuing fight for equal pay for equal work, progress has been far too slow, but it has been real.
Through your education, you understand our current challenges and our history. And I'm confident you'll be the problem-solvers who will help us address our toughest issues. But it's not just what you learn that matters, it's what you do with what you learn.
And I believe that perhaps the greatest value of education is in applying your knowledge and skills to—what should be—one of the most active and important roles of your life, the role of citizen.
So, today, I'd like to talk to you about the joyous—yes, joyous—responsibility we have as citizens to work toward continually improving our communities and strengthening our nation. And I will strive to show that by approaching your role as citizens with three key attitudes—joy, empathy, and hope—you will become more engaged in society, give our democracy the attention it needs to thrive, and be more capable of making positive change on the issues you care most about.
First, I want to reassure you that you are up to this task. Your education has prepared you for good citizenship.
Through the rich education you received at the University of Memphis, you learned how to work collectively, solve problems, think critically, and appreciate diversity in opinions, ideas, and people. These skills and dispositions are vital to being an engaged, contributing member of a community.
Through your education here, you also learned to grapple with the hard parts of our history, the legacy of which is still with us today—including slavery, racism, sexism, violence, discrimination, and segregation. In fact, this university was founded in the spirit of bringing people together through learning and scholarship. Your school colors, blue and gray—for the Union and the Confederacy—were chosen to represent unity in a nation that was recovering from the Civil War.
Through your service learning, you became aware of the challenges in the Memphis community and you worked to solve them. You did this while developing a deeper understanding of yourself as well as the importance of working toward the greater good.
Your education has equipped you to become a knowledgeable, engaged citizen for good reason. Education's role in this country long has been to prepare Americans to contribute to our democracy.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that, through education, Americans must come to "understand [their] duties to [their] neighbors and country ... [t]o know [their] rights [and] to exercise with order and justice those [rights they] retain."
Our Founders defined those rights as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." And while the America of the Founders certainly did not reflect this ideal, we can be proud that our nation continues to work toward it, toward honoring the premise that all are created equal.
The thing we must never forget about our rights and the core American value of equal opportunity is that they only exist through vigilant and active citizenship.
When I talk about citizenship as a means of protecting our rights and expanding equity, I'm not just talking about marches and protests—although they are essential. Standing up for our rights also means sitting down at community meetings and engaging with neighbors. It means joining campaigns and running for office yourself. It means pulling the disenfranchised up—whether that's by providing access to healthcare in impoverished communities or teaching underserved children in struggling schools.
Too often, people think of citizenship as a dusty relic that doesn't matter today.
We see this when a staggering number of Americans don't know much about how our nation functions. Only a quarter of Americans can name all three branches of government. Not even half of Americans can name a single Supreme Court Justice.
This challenge we face isn't new. John Dewey, an early pioneer in American education, wrote, "The trouble ... is that we have taken our democracy for granted; we have thought and acted as if our forefathers had founded it once and for all. We have forgotten that it has to be enacted anew in every generation."
And that is what I am calling upon you—graduates—to do. To refresh and redefine for a new generation what it means to be a good citizen.
I mentioned earlier that I had three suggestions for how to do this.
First, recognize the duty of citizenship as joyous.
The core value of this country is that you can make of your life whatever you will. What is that if not an uplifting and joyful notion?
But it is in our most basic civic duties that we fail to find joy or fulfillment, and we miss out on how empowering our citizenship can be. It's here where I'm really going to challenge you.
How many of you have grumbled at paying taxes?
Now, it might be a stretch for me to encourage you to be jubilant when you file your tax returns each April. But, exercising this civic obligation is vital for delivering to us things that we value—from schools, to the protection of our military, to services that keep us healthier and, I daresay, happier.
How many of you have complained about our politics, but neglected to vote?
We have to realize the importance of exercising this duty—in presidential elections and in contests that decide who represents us in city hall, the state house, and Congress.
America has some of the lowest voter participation rates in the free world—especially among youth. But voting is one of the most powerful things you can do as a citizen. The results of elections might not always please you, but your act of voting should be cherished, especially since it's a right people fought and died to secure.
And how many of you have dreaded jury duty?
Our nation's justice system depends upon people who serve. And juries are not just for deciding guilt—they provide a review of the law and how the law can be applied to everyone. In this way, when you serve on a jury, you can uphold equity and fairness—an important task that you can feel good about doing.
Law professor Andrew Guthrie Ferguson has written about these basic duties saying, "Citizenship is not always grand and soaring, but involves daily, ordinary actions of maintenance." And I would argue that in these actions, we can find joy in making our democracy work.
My next suggestion for renewing your role as citizen is to exercise empathy.
That can be hard to do. Technology connects us like never before. But technology can reinforce differences, feeding us only news and opinions we like to hear, entrenching us in our viewpoints. Until we begin to understand and respect people whose lives are different from our own, divisions in our communities and country will only grow.
It can be difficult to put yourself in another person's place, to appreciate someone else's perspective and experience, and to be inclined to care for a stranger.
Standing in this stadium, not too far from where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, I'm compelled to think of Dr. King and his final speech here in Memphis.
In it, he recounts the story of the Good Samaritan. As the tale goes, two men passed another man in need on a dangerous road. Neither of these men stopped to help the man in need. A Good Samaritan approached the man who required help, and, despite the threat of being attacked by thieves, the Good Samaritan assisted the man who struggled. Dr. King notes the Good Samaritan did not ask himself, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But instead, he reversed the question, and asked, "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"
Good citizenship requires that we continually challenge ourselves and assist others. When we empathize with all who struggle, we glimpse the common bonds we share as Americans.
My final piece of advice is to approach your vital, joyful, empathetic role as citizen with a sense of hope.
Our democracy can be slow to change. But you cannot let that discourage you from pushing our country closer to its highest ideals.
In this, I'm reminded of my uncle's example. Haldane King grew up in New York City in the 1920s when America was deeply segregated. Yet my uncle loved his country and volunteered to defend it in World War II as a Tuskegee Airman.
Even while he served his country, my uncle faced racism from his fellow servicemen in the military and from his countrymen at home. After the war, my uncle applied for accounting jobs for which he had training, but he couldn't enter the profession because of his race. Again, my uncle rejected cynicism and chose to serve first as a firefighter—to again risk his life for his fellow citizens—and then returned to a career in the Air Force, including serving at the Pentagon.
My uncle experienced intense discrimination. Yet, he always maintained hope that the injustices he endured would give way to the righteous American ideals that he fought hard to make real.
That sense of unwavering hope is what will sustain you, too.
And know, as you prepare to throw your graduation caps high in the air, that if you move in these powerful, yet simple ways—if you exercise your role as citizen with joy, empathy, and hope—that you can meet these days of challenge and opportunity, and all the days ahead, with a deeper sense of purpose. You can develop a more profound appreciation for your neighbors in Memphis and your fellow citizens from Maine to Maui. And you can approach the world with a better understanding of how you can improve it.
To the Class of 2017, the U of M has prepared you well. It has been my honor to speak with you today. Congratulations!