Good morning! President Adams, Dean White, faculty, staff, distinguished guests, parents, friends…and of course the students of Georgia Law’s Class of 2011…congratulations! I am honored to be here with you today.
This morning, we celebrate all of the hard work and sacrifice you’ve made over the past several years to obtain your law degrees. Being here brings back good memories of my law school days. I received both my undergraduate and law school degrees from Howard University in Washington D.C. and those were some of the best years of my life.
I attended Howard University against the advice of my father. He wanted me to come here. He had this notion that I would run for office one day, and he believed that to be successful as an elected official in Georgia, you had to have a UGA degree.
This was a hard decision for me to make. One, I had to leave the state I grew up in and leave my family and most of my friends behind. And two, I had to defy my dad. He had a pretty strong personality. He still does. But I made up my mind, and went to Howard. And in the end, things turned out okay --- although when I lost my first election at age 26, I felt a little worried that maybe my dad had been right.
I share this with you because when you leave here today as alumni of Georgia Law, you’ll have a lot of hard choices to make. You’ll have to make decisions that affect not only your own life, but that of the city you live in, your state, and yes, the nation as a whole.
I believe that the United States of America is at a crossroads. What do I mean by that? It means that as you stand here today, you must ask yourself this question: What will be my collective place in history? To ask what you, as an individual, hope to achieve is standard upon this occasion. But, I believe that is no longer a big enough question for this time in our nation’s history.
I say this because you are inheriting a world far different from the one you were born into. Much has changed in a generation. Our cities, our nation and our world are faced with sobering challenges --- challenges which demand we make hard, yet responsible choices for our future.
As Mayor of Atlanta, I am faced with the continuous challenge of having to offer much more in the way of services . . . with far less in the way of resources to face numerous challenges --- from a looming pension crisis, decaying city infrastructure and the responsibility of keeping a city safe in the midst of a deep economic downturn which tears at our sense of community.
That’s the situation in which we find ourselves. We’re facing international threats that were unimaginable to us as Americans before Sept. 11. We’re facing competition from countries such as China, India, and Brazil. All of this is happening when our deficits are growing, our environment is under siege, and our education system is not delivering the results we need for the future of our children.
Make no mistake about it: To achieve that kind of positive change, you are going to have to become leaders who do things that are hard. I would submit to you that my and your generation have not been challenged and tested to face and do hard things like our forefathers and mothers.
I often reflect on President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address and many of his speeches. He was a young leader, who came to power during a period of rapid change. During his presidency, he said we should not pray for lives of ease, but rather we should pray that we become stronger women and men.
I really think this is the mandate we must embrace. The tests of our time demand it. As a generation, you must decide - - like those who came before -- to do what is necessary - - to do what is hard -- to face every challenge that stands in the way of the continued advancement of this nation -- and our leading role in this world.
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 for the better.
You know, I was inspired to go to law school because of someone who changed our nation’s course for the better and who has been one of my personal heroes for as long as I can remember. When I was a young boy, my dad and I would sit at the kitchen table and he would talk to me and my three older brothers about politics and current events. One of the people he admired a great deal was Thurgood Marshall.
By the time he was 32, Marshall had won his first U.S. Supreme Court case, Chambers v. Florida and was appointed Chief Counsel for the NAACP. He argued many civil rights cases before the Supreme Court, successfully, with the most famous being Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954 --- the landmark case in which the Supreme Court ruled that "separate but equal" public education, as established by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, was not applicable to public education because it could never be truly equal. In total, Marshall won 29 out of the 32 cases he argued before the Supreme Court and then off course, went on to become the first African-American Supreme Court Justice.
Hearing about Thurgood Marshall made me want to become a lawyer. And now you know one of the reasons why when I turned 18, I went off to Howard University for college and law school --- Thurgood Marshall graduated first in class from the law school in 1933. Thurgood Marshall – clearly talented – could have chosen any number of paths for his life. But he chose to tackle hard things. He chose to turn into adversity.
So I came this way this morning to suggest that you also choose to turn into adversity; that you choose to spend some part of your life turning into the fire. I believe that turning into the fire is where greatness is.
And you are equipped to do just that. You are leaving Georgia Law today with an incredible advantage. You have a degree from one of the most prestigious public universities in the nation. You are part of an incredible network of UGA alumni. And you have extraordinary physical capacity --- the energy of your youth --- to go forward and work hard to great things.
After I graduated from law school, I returned home to Atlanta and worked for Paul Hastings and then I joined Holland and Knight. I had my typical client roster, but as a college and law school student, I’d met lots of folks in the music business. I love music. So, I proposed to my bosses that I develop an entertainment law practice. They said sure --- as long as you bill and bring in the fees.
So on top of my regular corporate work, I began building a roster of clients in the entertainment business. That meant that I’d often work a full day, fly out to Los Angeles for a meeting, and sometimes take a red-eye right back, go home to my place in midtown, shower, change and turn-around and go right back into work --- maybe even get on a plane later in the day to Boston or Washington D.C. for another client meeting.
Well, in 2008, at age 38, I began my campaign for Mayor of the City of Atlanta. Some of you may know --- it was a tough campaign. I didn’t win by a lot.
Anyway, there were some times when I had to do out-of-state fundraising. My campaign staff scheduled a trip to Los Angeles after a full day of activities and put me on the red-eye to be back for an event the next morning. I said, “Fine, no problem. I used to do this all the time.” Well, I worked all day, got on the plane, went to the fund-raiser in Los Angeles, got on the red-eye back to Atlanta, went home, showered and nearly died.
Things are a lot different at 40 than at 25. I say all this to tell you to get ready to work hard now. Fall in love with the grind. The grind is all those moments alone that people never see, but lead to all those moments when they say, “I knew you were going to be successful all along.”
All of this is easier said than lived, but I know what you can do. 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; something bigger than you are.
As I close, let me leave you with one last reflection. I recently read about how the famed attorney William Kunstler kept a reproduction of Michelangelo’s statue of David on his desk. It is unique because it is the only important artistic work of David before he throws the stone to commence the battle with Goliath.
Looking at it, Kunstler pondered the lesson inherent in the pose and thought, “David is standing there thinking . . . Do I dare? Do I dare? If I throw the rock and I miss . . . I am one dead Israelite. If I just wound him, I am in the same position. But if I strike him and defeat him, I have done a great deal for myself and more importantly, for my people.”
Each of us faces such moments before we dare to do something significant.
Granted, if we lack the will to act and just allow the thought to pass - - no one outside of ourselves will know. However, there is no worse feeling in the depths of our spirit than knowing our defining moment came and went - - and we did not respond.
Georgia Law Class of 2011, as tomorrow’s leaders you will find yourselves faced with a similar choice - - and collectively you must ask, “Do I dare? Do I dare?”
I believe you will.
Thank you, and Godspeed.
Last updated: 3/28/2012 8:52:17 AM