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Public Papers - 1989

Remarks at the Alcorn State University Commencement Ceremony in Lorman, Mississippi

1989-05-13

Thank you all, and especially, my thanks to you, Dr. Washington. You know, last month we commemorated the bicentennial of the American Presidency. And, Walter, I have to tell you, after all these actors in powdered wigs, it is a relief to stand beside someone who really is President Washington. [Laughter] Good morning.

But to you and your wonderful faculty here at Alcorn, I just say I am delighted to be here. Incidentally, Dr. Washington's ears should have been burning, because when I rode down on the helicopter from Jackson with the two United States Senators from Mississippi, they were telling me in considerable detail -- more than I knew from my briefing papers -- of this man's commitment to excellence. And so, I salute him and his service to this wonderful university.

Lieutenant Governor Dye, it's a pleasure to be with you, sir. I'm, of course, delighted that Thad Cochran and Trent Lott are with us today, a tribute to all here. I'm very pleased that my good friend, Sonny Montgomery, a Congressman whose home is in Meridian, is here. We're in Congressman Mike Espy's district, and I salute him. Congressman Mike Parker is here, and many other distinguished guests. I also want to say thanks to all of them.

Congratulations also to the families and the friends and the fans of these students. But I think most of all, to the Alcorn State University Class of 1989, we salute you, and I'm proud to be with you. You've been part of what they call the Alcorn family. And this is a day for the family. But it's your own individual families, the mothers and fathers and grandparents gathered here, that I want to congratulate. In a very private way, your years of hard work and your years of sacrifice and, yes, love for your sons and daughters have brought this moment to pass. And although the first round of applause has died now, I think you all really deserve the first round of applause -- the parents and the grandparents of the graduates here today.

I know how deadly long graduation speeches can be. I'll never forget Yale University where I went. A man got up, he says, ``I'm going to give you a brief graduation speech. And I will choose, because our school has a short name, Y. Y is for youth.'' He went on for about 30 minutes. ``And then it's A, altruism'' -- [laughter] -- another 20; L, loyalty -- rushed that off in about 18 minutes; and then, of course, E, for excellence. He concluded about an hour and a half after he started. And there was one person left, his head bent in prayer. And the minister, the speaker, very touched by it, said, ``Well, sir, I see that you are praying for these values.'' The man said, ``No, no.'' He said, ``I wasn't praying for the values. I was giving thanks to the Lord that I did not go to Alcorn State University in Lorman, Mississippi.'' [Laughter] I'll try to be a little more considerate.

Dr. David Matthews, in his lovely invocation, alluded to family. He alluded to some of the problems that we face. And the American family has been under siege in recent times. But as the months unfold, I've become more and more certain that the answer to our problems can be found in the strength of the American family. Looking around this room, you can sense the feeling of pride, and it's a powerful force for good. And as President, I will do everything I can to promote the family: excellence in education, to protect the family in the fight against narcotics, and to reaffirm the family values that brought your kids through these 4 challenging years.

For some American families -- those fortunate families where children are raised assuming that they'll have the opportunity to go to college -- the drama of today's ceremony is difficult to appreciate. Many of you are the first, though, in your families ever to attend college, let alone stay the course through graduation. And the economic transformation wrought by the historically black colleges such as Alcorn is nothing less than astounding. While 85 percent of the United Negro College Fund alumni come from blue-collar families, almost all go on to professional or managerial positions, and in many cases, they're the first blacks to hold these particular positions. It's an exciting tradition and one of the most underappreciated success stories in America.

It's also a tradition that is close to my heart, because way back in 1948, when I was a senior at Y-A-L-E, 41 years ago, my wife, Barbara -- still my wife, Barbara; then she and I had been married just a few years -- we began participating in the United Negro College Fund. And in the 40 years since then, we've continued to try to do our small part. And even before becoming President, back in January, just a week before the inauguration, Dr. Washington and some of his colleagues came to Washington, DC, met with me to talk about how the new administration can best support this unique tradition. And some good ideas came out of that gathering, and several are already in effect -- begun last month in the meeting that he alluded to, when Dr. Washington and others joined me in the Rose Garden to launch the President's Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

And now I understand that several of today's graduates are going to be joining in Federal service -- in agriculture, defense, transportation, and other critical areas. And I'm proud of you, and we welcome you. And we need excellence in Federal service; America needs your talents. And that's not just idle talk. Last month's order also directed that the Federal personnel office develop a program to improve recruitment at Alcorn and similar colleges for part-time and summer positions to help people get started in the concept of Federal public service. And I understand that a campaign is underway here now to raise a half a million dollars through a Federal challenge grant program. Recently, I signed an order bringing million in new funds to boost the endowment matching grants available to schools like Alcorn. As I told the college Presidents who gathered at the White House last month, these new initiatives are just a start. More must be done.

But on a day like today, there is much of which we can be proud. Alcorn has come a long way since 1948. That was the landmark year that Alcorn first earned its ``A'' rating as an accredited college. And that was the year ``The Stretch'' was finally paved, a milestone that was resoundingly cheered by the graduating class.

Do you know how many graduated back in 1948? Trivial Pursuit question -- how many? Sixty in number, barely a fifth of the total receiving degrees today, a ceremony so small that it fit comfortably into the Oakland Chapel. And like my classmates in Connecticut, many of the men at Alcorn in 1948 were veterans, soldiers who had fought for democracy, many of them serving in segregated units. And like many of you today, the Alcornites of 1948 were graduating with skills that would enable them to feed the hungry, nurse the sick, and reach out to help the young through education.

Future Pittsburgh Steeler Jack Spinks, the first black pro athlete to come out of Mississippi, was getting ready to start his freshman year. He would soon be practicing in a ramshackle wooden building that everyone called the ``Old Chicken Coop.'' And Jack says that when it rained during basketball games, the roof leaked so bad that people had to keep their umbrellas open. The modern field house in which we're gathered today was not then even a dream. And Jack, I am told, is somewhere out here today, and I understand that his youngest son is part of the graduating class.

But these 40 years of schooling that separate father and son -- the years that separate them embrace an era of tremendous change for Alcorn and for the United States of America, a time of upheaval and, finally, a time of growth, and maybe something like wisdom.

Not everything has changed: the threads woven through the fabric at Alcorn, and anyplace where excellence is sought, are what used to be called simple family values. We're not talking about two sets of values; family values are the same regardless of race, color, or creed. Family values -- they're not complicated: honesty, faith, frugality, acceptance of responsibility, the importance of work, a tradition of helping one's neighbor. Martin Luther King argued that ``intelligence is not enough.'' He said, ``Intelligence plus character -- that is the goal of the true education.''

Well, you here at Alcorn are lucky. This is a place where, as your old football coach put it, ``the air is a little bit cleaner, the grass is a little bit greener, and the water is a little bit sweeter -- it's just a little bit closer to heaven.'' You see, this place has character. It is a university with a mission. And to paraphrase a new song that's climbing the charts this month, this special, secluded college has been ``the wind beneath your wings.'' And for you and for young Americans graduating all across this country this month, it is time for you to take that wind and soar. And for some of you, I hope there comes a day when you ride those winds into the political arena to fight for what you believe in, to grapple not only with your own dreams but also those of your countrymen.

But politics is hardly the only arena where a new breeze is blowing. Some of you will land in business, maybe even start a business where you can create jobs adding to the opportunity of other Americans. And that's public service, too. Now, business can be pretty rough-and-tumble. But America is successful because we're a nation of risktakers. The Alcorn Braves know that you can't steal second base and keep one foot on first. That's profound. [Laughter] Others will teach the next generation and put wind beneath their wings. Your touchstone should be excellence, accountability, and choice. The educational system must offer parents quality choice in education. Alcorn's a good example. But our schools must also be more accountable, and those of you who will know the joy of helping a child learn are an important part of that responsibility. Others are headed for health care, agriculture, journalism, the professions. Whatever you choose, it is within you to change the world; and any definition of a successful life must, of course, include serving others.

As each of you begins a new life today, you may fairly ask, will my future be secure? This isn't just a domestic question; it's a foreign policy question. For the past 40 years, the United States and the Soviet Union have been engaged in a struggle because the Soviets have chosen to stand apart from and opposed to the world family of nations. Yesterday I announced a new policy for the 1990's, one that moves beyond our country just trying to contain the Soviet Union. It sets a goal of bringing the Soviet Union into the world community, a policy of reintegration, if you will. And if we succeed, I can guarantee to you and your kids that the future you know is going to be safer and the world you know will be freer. This I see as a primary objective of any President of the United States of America. As the Soviet Union moves towards greater openness and democratization and as they meet the challenge of responsible international behavior, we will match their steps with steps of our own.

Today every senior here is an educated man or woman, proud, self-assured. With all the cockiness of youth, some of you -- I hope most of you -- must be feeling like anything is possible today. Well, trust those instincts. Everyone has a dream. Everyone has something to give.

Last month I saw a new movie -- maybe some of you all saw it -- a movie about baseball and about faith, in which Burt Lancaster ponders the power of hope. And he asks: ``Is there enough magic out there in the moonlight to make this dream come true?'' Well, I have come to Mississippi today because the magic of America and the magic of our times means believing that your best days -- that our best days -- are still to come. Born in an era of peace and educated in times of relative prosperity, your generation can look to a new century rich with unimaginable opportunities.

And, yes, there is enough magic out there, enough for all Americans. And, yes, you can seize the magic with the power of your own hands and with the skills bequeathed to you by this special university. And, yes, just as Alcorn's 1988 yearbook was dedicated to Dr. King, you can honor his memory by doing what he taught this nation to do: to have a dream and to work every day to make that dream come true.

America is proud of you and of your families that you represent. God bless you in the challenge to come, and God bless the United States of America. I am honored to be your guest today. Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 11:15 a.m. in the Health and Physical Education Building. In his remarks, he referred to Walter Washington, president of the university; Lt. Gov. Brad Dye; Senators Thad Cochran and Trent Lott; and David Matthews, president of the General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Mississippi.

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