‘Be what you is and not what you ain’t’

Good evening to all of you.

I apologize for those of you for whom it is not a good evening, and we will try one more time. Good evening to all of you.

Thank you. I appreciate your response. My culture is called “responsive.” That is to say, if an old man like me greets you, the minimum you ought to do is return the greeting.

Congratulations to all of those of you who are graduating—those of you who have earned your degrees and I hope that your future will be bright. I want to thank your families for their support, their being there for you to help you along. President Watkins, to Chairman Burton, to the trustees: Thank you for your kind invitation to me—to chairman Simmons and members of the Board of Regents, to the students, staff, faculty, friends, ladies and gentlemen. I am overwhelmed with the opportunity to speak this afternoon.

One of my mentors was Dr. Howard Thurman. Dr. Thurman taught at Harvard, at Stanford, was dean of the Chapel. And Dr. Thurman taught us when we were but youngsters that respect is due to everybody, that honor is due to a few people, but kindness—kindness, kindness—nobody ever quite deserves kindness. For kindness says more about the person who shares it than it does about the one who receives it.

And I’d like to take this opportunity, on behalf of my wife Willene, our children and grandchildren, great-grandchildren, our entire family to say, “Thank you, University of Utah, for your kindnesses that you’ve shown to me.”

Now, permit me to take a few moments of your time and share a bit of my own personal story. I was born during the days when it was against the law—if you look like me—to sit in the same section, to ride in the same part, to eat in the same restaurant, and even to use the same toilet facilities that the majority used.

I remember the very day that my father was finally allowed—who, by the way, was some 40 years older than me—but, he was finally allowed to register and vote, and he got up early one morning and did a strange thing. He dressed in his black shiny suit from ironing, polished his shoes with tallow, put his derby on his head, got in his 1949 Chevrolet and drove into town to serve on a jury. He was proud to be a registered voter, and finally, the opportunity to serve on a jury.

Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 put “separate but equal” in Cotton Creek and made it illegal to get out of one’s racial place. The problem for me was I never quite knew what place that was. Is it up front in the train? Is it in the back of the bus? Is it upstairs in the theater? Is it down below in the boat? I never knew quite what place that was, and so I’d never stayed.

So, thank God for finally Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 and Mrs. Rosa Parks, along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in 1955, they started to bring about change. And we are still—in 2019—trying to get there. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act passed. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act brought us together and instilled in many of us that were hopeless, a sense that it’s possible you can get there, and you can get there from here.

We are still not there, though. You and I, and you graduates, in particular, and your generation, in more particular, are charged with activating the genuine change of attitudes. I think we have the laws on the books sufficient to cover much of what we need, but we still have attitudes that need to be changed.

So, I went ahead and graduated from Waynesboro High, an industrial school, and my dad gave me $27.50 and sent me off to college. Fortunately, Tuskegee, now Tuskegee University, started by Booker T. Washington, had a five-year plan—much like many of you students were on. Well, you are on the six-, the seven- well, whatever year plan you were on—but Tuskegee had a five-year plan where you could work full time the first year, study part-time and the next four years, you work part-time and went to school full time.

Well, I there met Dr. Martin Luther King at Tuskegee, and I met all of the other important African-Americans that year, and I joined the march from Selma to Montgomery to help those who were trying to get—as my father had finally gotten—the opportunity to register and vote without having to worry about poll taxes and literacy test. A few years ago, by the way, I’ll just insert this in passing. I was teaching here on campus, I was teaching a course entitled, the African-American American Experience, and I gave my students a copy of the literal tests that they used for literacy in Alabama, and not one of my students could pass the test.

And yet, African-Americans were forced to take these literacy tests. Now, while my mother went only to the eighth grade and my father, the third grade—and by the way, finally, he did graduate from school after he retired—my parents insisted that their two crops of children would have to do better than they had done. And so here are seven lessons that I learned, and if you got a pencil and a piece of paper, or perhaps you can write it on the sides of your head. Here are seven lessons that we learn from my parents.

  1. The first lesson we learned is that you ought to prepare as if everything depends upon you. Learn through job experience, learn from the classroom experience, and above all, get a little horse. I mean, that is, common sense, and learn to apply all three.
  2. Second, my parents taught us a lesson and the lesson was: Get can’t—C-A-N-‘-T—out of your vocabulary. Press forward. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. wrote in a book and said it this way, “Keep the faith, baby.” Curtis may feel that modern-day blues prophet said, “Keep on pushing.”
  3. The third lesson that I learned from my parents that I pass on to you: Shoot for the stars, and if you fall short, you’ll fall among the stars. Pull down the walls that polarize us and build with bricks of unity so that we can be one.
  4. Fourthly, approach life with a servant attitude. Students who go out believing that what’s in it for me is what I ought to be pursuing are mistaken. What you ought really to be looking forward to is reaching and helping others to reach their fullest potential. For we are all in the boat together, and either we sink or we sail.
  5. Fifth, in spite of growing the growing polarization in our society today, find a way to do something that nobody—absolutely nobody—has been able to do yet. And I tell you what that is: Find a way to bring us together.
    Behold how good and pleasant it is for us to dwell together in unity. That old Negro spiritual said it this way: “Walk together children, don’t you get weary. Walk together children, don’t you get weary. Walk together children, don’t you get weary. There’s a great camp meeting in the promised land.”
    And so, to each of you, these students that are graduating, those of you that are about to pursue your career, here’s a last word of advice that I would pass on that I learned from my parents.
  6. Don’t go crazy with your liberty. Don’t go crazy with your freedoms, for your freedom ends at your neighbor’s nose.
  7. Finally, then, and I apologize to those of you for whom you are scholars in English, and you know better than I how to say this, but here’s the way my mother and father said it: “Be what you is and not what you ain’t. Because if you ain’t what you is, then you is what you ain’t.”