University of Vermont

Ceremonial Events - Commencement

Commencement Address 2007

Commencement Address

The Honorable John R. Lewis
United States House of Representatives

President Fogel, members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished faculty, guests, parents, family, and friends, and to the class of 2007. I am honored and delighted to be with you on this very important occasion. To each and every one of you receiving a diploma today---- congratulations. Because you have completed this assignment in your life, you can now recognize the value of dreaming dreams and seeing them realized. This is a great day. This is your day. Enjoy it! Take a long, deep breath and take it all in.
But tomorrow you must be prepared to roll up your sleeves, because the world is waiting for talented men and women to lead it to a better place. The world is waiting for you, for your leadership, for your vision to help build an all-inclusive world community based on simple justice, an all-encompassing community that values the dignity of every individual----what I like to call the Beloved Community.

Consider those two words: Beloved Community. “Beloved” means not hateful, not violent, not uncaring, not unkind. And “Community” means not separated, not polarized, not locked in struggle.

The most pressing challenge in our society today is defined by the methods we use to defend the dignity of humankind. But too often we are focused on accumulating the trappings of a comfortable life—the big house, some new clothes, and a shiny, new car. But, if you want a better, more just, more fair society then you have to get in the way. You cannot wait for someone else to create change.

You cannot wait for Congress to do it. You cannot wait for corporate America to do it. You cannot wait for your state legislators to do it. Through your own efforts, through your own actions, through your own creativity and vision, you have to do it. You must make our society a better place.

I grew up on a farm in a little town outside Troy, Alabama. My parents were sharecroppers. And as a young child, I tasted the bitter fruits of racism, and I didn’t like it. I saw those signs that said WHITE MEN, COLORED MEN, WHITE WOMEN, COLORED WOMEN, WHITE WAITING, AND COLORED WAITING. I used to ask my mother, my father, and my grandparents, my great grandparents, “Why segregation?! Why racial discrimination!” And they would say, “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in trouble. Don’t get in the way.”

But one day I heard the voice of Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio, and it sounded like he was talking directly to me. He talked about another generation of students, another generation of young people who decided to boycott segregated public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama. He described the determined, non-violent action of a disciplined people. He talked about young people and those not so young, people just like you and me, ordinary people with extraordinary vision who decided to take a stand for what they believed. At that moment, I knew that I could strike a blow against segregation and racial discrimination.

I decided to get in the way. I decided to get in trouble. But it was good trouble, it was necessary trouble.

Sometimes I wonder why young people today are so quiet. I don’t think the students in my generation would accept what we take today.

Whatever it is you care about – whether it’s getting to the truth about the war in Iraq, global warming, shrinking economic opportunities for the middle class, or the injustice of poverty—you have to find your passion and make your contribution.

You must be maladjusted to the problems and conditions of today. You have to get off the sidelines and get in the way. You just have to get in the way and make your voices heard. You have an obligation, a mission and a mandate from all of those who men and women who sacrificed before you. Some of them gave a little blood. Some of them gave their very lives for this democracy. You must do your part. You have to find a way to get in the way.

As a participant in the Civil Rights Movement, we didn’t have a website, we didn’t have a cell phone, we didn’t have an IPOD, we didn’t even have a fax machine. But we had ourselves and we put our bodies on the line to make a difference in our society.

We didn’t just wake up one day and decide to March on Washington or from Selma to Montgomery. We studied Emerson, Thoreau and other great thinkers. We studied what Gandhi attempted to do in South Africa and what he accomplished in India. We studied the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Montgomery.

And we really believed that if we practiced the discipline of non-violence, not just as an idea, but as a way of life, that we could change things in America. We really believed that we were building the Beloved Community. And through our action, we brought about a non-violent revolution under the rule of law, a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas.

All across America the signs that said WHITE and COLORED came down. Today you will not see them, unless you visit a museum or see them in a book. Today you cannot imagine being arrested for sitting next to another human being on a public bus.

We have come a long way, but we still have a distance to go before we lay down the burden of hatred, of violence, of race and class. There is still a need to change the social, economic, political, and religious structures around us. There is still a need to build the Beloved Community.

For those of us in the Movement, we learned early that our struggle was not for a month, a season, or a year, but the struggle of a lifetime. That is what it takes to build the “Beloved Community.”

Let me close with a story from my childhood that I think symbolizes the commitment that we must make to stand together in our struggle for social justice in America.

One day when I was growing up outside of a little town called Troy, Alabama, I was visiting the home of an aunt of mine....Aunt Seneva. Aunt Seneva lived in what we called a shotgun house. Most of you don’t know what a shotgun house is.

In a non-violent sense, if you bounce a basketball through the front door of a shotgun house, it would go right out the back door. In a more military sense, in shotgun house, you can fire a gun through the front door and the bullet would go right out the back door.

My Aunt Seneva lived in shotgun house with a tin roof that had little holes in it. And sometimes at night you could look up and see the stars. And when it would rain she would gather a tin pan, that some people call a bucket, and put it down to catch the rain water.
One day my sisters and brothers and a few of my cousins were all playing out in the yard. There were about 12 or 15 of us. And suddenly, an unbelievable storm came up with strong winds blowing. The thunder was rolling, and the lightening was flashing. My aunt Seneva suggested that we all should come into the house. And we all went inside.

She told us to hold hands. And we did as we were told. I could tell my aunt was terrified because she started crying. She thought that old house was going to blow away. She started crying, and we all started crying.

We were scared, but when one corner of that old house appeared to be lifting from its foundation, we would run to that corner of the room. And then when another corner began to lift up, we would walk to that corner of the room. We were trying to use our little bodies to hold that old house down.

My friends, the storms may come. The winds may blow. The thunder may roll. The lightning may flash. And the rain may beat down on this old house. Call it the House of the University of Vermont. Call it the House of Burlington. Call it the American House. Call it the World House. We all live in the same house.

We must never, ever leave that house. We must not give up; we must not give in; we must not give out.

The journey through life is difficult, but it is more meaningful when it is fueled by a vision, a dream, a determination to make life better for someone other than yourself. You have the power to change the social, political, and economic structures around you. You have the power to lead. Just find a way to get in the way and make your voices heard. So with that I say to you walk with the wind, and let the Spirit of History be your guide. Thank you.

 

Last modified May 24 2007 01:16 PM

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