Since I have been Mayor of the City of Atlanta, I have had some really special experiences, but I can easily say standing here right now, that there is no place like home.
President Ribeau, thank you for that kind introduction.
Chairman Rand, members of the Board of Trustees, our faculty, our staff, distinguished guests, friends and of course the students of Howard University ---
Thank you for the high honor of addressing you on the occasion of the 144th Anniversary of the founding of my alma mater, Howard University.
I am deeply humbled be with you for this Charter Day Convocation. One Hundred & Forty Four Years is a very long time --- and I am committed to doing my best to ensure that you won’t feel like you have been here for One Hundred and Forty Four Years by the time I am done.
To the students of Howard University, especially the sophomores --- we are in similar places you and I. You as fairly new students --- still learning the ropes --- and me as a young Mayor 14 months into office.
We are both in what I like to call our “Jimmy Jenkins” moment. During World War II, young Jimmy enlisted for service in the Army. He was sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina for basic training. When he arrived, the first person he met was Sergeant Johnson, who was very tough.
As fate would have it, Jimmy did not appear to be a very good soldier. He was routinely late for reverie and his bed was never quite tight enough, so he always had to clean the latrine. Despite all of that, Jimmy survived basic training because he loved his country and was sent to Europe to assist with the great invasion of Normandy.
Things got tough and wouldn’t you know Sergeant Johnson was deployed to Europe as well. As soon as he landed, he assembled his battalion and there standing right in front of him was Jimmy Jenkins. He said to himself, “Not again!” So, he looked around, and out in the distance, he saw a mountain. He yelled, “Jimmy Jenkins, go guard that hill.”
Jimmy gathered his belongings and built his fox hole. Late one night, a group of spies from the Axis armies was climbing up the mountain. Jimmy sprung into action, throwing grenades and machine gun fire. The Sergeant saw the action and grabbed a group of men to help Jimmy, but by the time they got there all the fighting was done.
The Sergeant looked into the fox hole, and Jimmy was sitting there with a cigarette in hand, trembling. The Sergeant said with pride, “Jimmy, Jimmy, I am so proud of you, I never knew you had it in you.” Jimmy looked up at the Sergeant, hands still trembling, and said “Sergeant, things are a little different when you are in business for yourself.”
That’s what being a Mayor often feels like. And, I’m sure it’s how many of you feel, when you’re up at 3 a.m. alone – studying or working on a tough paper.
With that, I would like to begin my remarks with a fundamental belief. That belief is that if Howard University did not exist, you would have to invent it. Whether it is in law, or medicine, or the professions no single institution, outside of the Armed Forces of the United States of America has done more to establish and create the African-American middle class than Howard University.
I believe that a robust argument can be made that we perform a similar function for our nation that is consistent with those provided by the great academies of the Navy and Army --- except our mission is to train all people, but particularly African-Americans, for positions of leadership in the United States and the world. And for more than 144 years that is what we have done and I believe we execute this function better than anyone else.
Think of our founder, Oliver Otis Howard, and what was done 144 years ago in 1867 when he founded this university. Think about it. Just two years earlier, the Civil War had ended --- the bloodiest war in this nation’s history. It left more than 620,000 men dead, 10 percent of the males in the North and 30 percent in the South roughly between ages 18 and 40. Scores of others were maimed for life. Most would never recover.
In the South, more than 400,000 African-Americans were about a face a seismic shift in their lives. Newly freed, they basically had no education, no money, no land --- many had been torn apart from their families.
Oliver Otis Howard --- after fighting a war with so much loss, so much damage ---- losing some major battles, winning others --- he came to Washington, DC to build a university to educate the freedmen. Do you know how hard that must have been? The determination that took? The force of will?
Because of this unique idea birthed from our nation’s greatest challenge, when you choose Howard, you have a responsibility to lead, and to lead well. Whether in physics, engineering, in education or the arts --- you have the responsibility to expend the energy to be first, the energy for excellence. Because that is what Howard must demand.
One hundred and forty four years later, what are the results? Howard University has produced more African-American lawyers than any other institution in the United States, more African-American dentists than any other institution in the United States, and more African-American physicians than any other institution in the United States.
Sometimes, in the midst of the fiscal constraints and needed reforms that we undergo to achieve excellence, we need to call the roll, as the old folks used to say, and remind ourselves of this institution’s unique role in the world.
This is an intentional place. If you can think of a significant African-American figure in the life of this nation, they came this way. Frederick Douglass sat in the chair as a Trustee. Here, it is said that Booker T. Washington sought to stop construction on Founder’s Library because they had no black carpenters working to build it. And we recount the names of our alumni with a preacher’s ease.
Let’s call the roll. When the city of New York needed its first African American mayor, call the role, it was David Dinkins. When the state of Virginia needed a first African-American Governor to pave the way for Barack Obama, call the role, it was Howard University and Doug Wilder. When we needed a brilliant surgeon it was LaSalle LeFall, who broke barriers and helped to build Howard University’s school hospital. When D.C. needed to break the gender barrier and create a first woman mayor, it was Sharon Pratt Kelly, call the role. It was Howard University.
When the United States Senate needed to be integrated, call the role, it was Senator Edward Brooke, he was a Howard man. We can keep talking about it all day long. And when Dr. Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy needed lawyers to make the cases that the Civil Rights Movement become legal in fact, call the role, it was Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall who were the partners to that. You can’t get around Howard University.
And I am only going to stop now because of my earlier commitment to respect your time. But you know, sometimes reflection and encouragement is needed. Because for Howard to be Howard, we must be an institution that believes in itself.
In the same moment, we cannot stop moving forward. We cannot be a museum. That is why President Ribeau’s reforms around our academic programs are so vital. And that is why the support of the Board of Trustees, under the leadership of Chairman Rand, for significant financial investments is vital, because our greatness lies in turning into the fire. Doing what is hard. And not using the excuse of difficult economic times not to be modern.
We must be modern. Moving from new to next, and from better to best. That’s why when Kamala Harris campaigned to become the first female Attorney General of California, I was by her side. When Karen Carter became the Speaker of the Louisiana House, Howard University smiles.
When Dennis Ellis graduates from Howard University School of Law and becomes the first African-American partner at Paul Hastings to start as a first year associate and end up as an equity partner, the Founders smile.
And when twenty years ago, sitting in a Howard University Board of Trustees meeting, Ambassador Young said to me, “You should come back to Atlanta. We are going to need a Mayor like you one day.” Exactly twenty years later, he sat there with tears rolling down his face as I was sworn in as the 59th Mayor of the City of Atlanta. That’s the Howard University I know.
We can never let Howard become a museum. Your generation must make sure that promise meets achievement, again and again and again.
So for my generation and yours, the question becomes, “What are we prepared to do?” “What are you prepared to sacrifice?” It has been said that of all the virtues, strength is the most important, for without strength no other virtue is possible. It is the virtue that pushes you forward when the darkness is so total.
I would submit to you that my generation has not been challenged and tested to face and do hard things like our forefathers and mothers. We have not faced a country torn apart like Oliver Otis Howard did 144 years ago.
We have not battled the kind of evil at the heart of World War I and World War II. We have not suffered like the Greatest Generation during the Great Depression. And we have not been tested like the courageous men and women who sat, stood, marched – did what it took – during the Civil Rights Movement.
And as a result, I believe we are in danger of becoming a generation that lacks the moral will to do hard things that matter. Things that change our course. Hard things like founding a university for newly freed blacks just after the Civil War. Hard things like staring down dogs and hoses and letting the bus go by when you’ve got to get to work, and your boss isn’t very understanding and those bills are piling up. Hard things like having your passport revoked or your career ambushed because you dared speak truth to power.
So I came this way this morning to suggest that we choose to turn into adversity, to spend some part of your life turning into the fire. I believe that turning into the fire is where greatness is. It is where Frederick and Martin and Thurgood are.
And I believe that is where Howard University should be. The hard fact is that by 2025 the majority of America’s school children will be people of color. So, the protracted achievement gap between black children and white children is no longer a problem for a race. It is a problem for the nation.
Howard University is uniquely qualified to help meet this challenge. Howard University should take on this challenge. It is one that is worthy of us. It is one that will be hard. But it is one we must do.
To the young people here today, Howard University students…whether you know it or not, you are the essential ingredient to reverse the tide of this difficult present, of low aims, of single-parent households, of a drop-out rate that supplies the cradle to prison pipeline.
This is the moment, this is the time for preparation, preparation, preparation. It is your time to toughen up --- not in the sense of harshness or carelessness --- but in the sense of your purpose and of meaning business.
I need for you to use your extraordinary physical capacity --- the energy of youth --- to get ready, to fall in love with the grind. The grind is all those moments alone that people never see, that to the moments when people will say, “I knew you were going to be successful all along.”
All of this is easier said than lived, but I know what Howard can produce if you do your fair share. And when you stumble, keep moving, when you are down, don’t stop, remember that you are a part of something that is bigger than you are. Because at the end of the day, you extend your own life by contributing to something that will outlast you.
When I was a boy, I loved the Dallas Cowboys. Now that I am the Mayor of Atlanta, I love me some Atlanta Falcons. But I used to follow the Cowboys, especially Tony Dorsett and later Emmitt Smith. And one day, I was watching a show about John Madden, and how he coined the phrase “yards after contact” from a play involving Emmitt Smith.
The play was rather simple. The Cowboys were on their one yard line and Troy Aikman took the snap and tossed the ball to Smith, as soon as he touched the ball, he got hit with such force he should have been knocked to the ground.
But Emmitt Smith kept on his feet and spun around and rather than stopping him, the hit propelled him forward for the longest run of his career. So when the door gets shut in your face for that dream internship, remember yards after contact. When you keep checking your text messages to see if your Mom or Dade made the deposit, remember yards after contact. When a professor tests your resolve and you think you are being picked on, remember yards after contact…
From today forward, you can no longer believe that your life outcome -- your success --- is simply for you alone because Howard University was and remains America’s solution to a national challenge for which you are needed.
On this past Sunday, Ambassador Young and I were talking about what it was like for him and Dr. King during the darkest days of the Civil Rights Movement. He laughed and said that for the most part, it was hard…but fun. He said, “We had a plan, we did our work and we didn’t know that we were changing the world.”
Ladies and gentlemen of Howard University, let’s get a plan. Let’s do our work and you know what, we just may change the world…
Thank you and Godspeed.