Jimmy Carter photo

Address at the Commencement Exercises at Cheyney State College

May 20, 1979

Dr. Wilson, Congressman Gray, Congressman Edgar, Senior Class President Shelton, Ms. Blango, members of the graduating class of 1979:

I'm glad to be here.

This is my third commencement address since I've been President. The first one was to Notre Dame. Last year, I spoke to my own alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, and I'm continuing my very rare appearances at famous and great institutions of learning by coming here to Cheyney State.

I tried to think of a story that would illustrate some of the points I want to make. My staff this morning suggested that I tell the one about the surgeon and the architect and the politician who were arguing about which represented the oldest profession—since you are now getting ready to embark on new professions.

The surgeon said, "Surely it's mine, medicine, because the first woman was created with an operation when Adam's rib was removed." The architect said, "No, that's obviously not true, because the first act recorded was when order was created out of chaos, and that was certainly an architectural achievement." The politician said, "Well, who do you think created the chaos?" [Laughter]

I did not think that was a very good suggestion. [Laughter]

When I spoke at Notre Dame, I told a more appropriate story about the old gentleman who was arrested and taken before the judge for being drunk and setting a bed on fire. And the old gentleman, when asked by the judge if the charges were true, said, "Well, Your Honor, I plead guilty to being drunk, but the bed was on fire when I got in it." [Laughter]

I believe the latter is more appropriate to the occasion, because you and I have a lot in common. As President, I have a special opportunity to take part in the stream of history and also to study the course of history. Tonight, for instance, I will sleep in the same room where Abraham Lincoln slept when he was President, only a few steps from the place where he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Thursday, I met in the White House with several hundred black leaders, dozens of whom were instrumental in bringing about the Supreme Court decision, Brown versus the Board of Education, which occurred 25 years ago on that date, which struck down the separate but equal doctrine that had perpetuated segregation in the schools of a nation which has always claimed to be free and to provide equality of opportunity.

Not long ago, when I was in Memphis, I went with Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr., to the balcony of a motel to visit the spot where her own husband was assassinated.

These events and others like them are profoundly moving, personal experiences. But I also feel a sense of history as I stand here today.

Many of you are the first in your family who ever had a chance to go to college. Neither my father nor any of his ancestors ever had a chance to finish high school or to go to college. So, I share the pride that you feel. And I also know the hardship that has gone into this achievement which is taking place today.

Ours, yours and mine, is a very special generation, the generation that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was thinking of when he expressed his dream for America with an eloquence and a moral power that never will be forgotten.

One part of Dr. King's dream had a special meaning for me because of the State where he and I were born. He said, "I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slaveholders will be able to sit down at the table of brotherhood."

And now when Andrew Young and I, two Georgians, sit down in the White House with other Cabinet members to hammer out foreign policy for the United States of America, it truly is a table of brotherhood.

I'm proud that we are working together for human rights around the world and for a majority rule, equality, and the end of racism and apartheid in southern Africa.

But I have not come to Cheyney State to boast about what my administration has done in foreign policy or civil rights or any other field. I'm not here to soothe you with promises that everything is going to be all right just because I happen to be in the White House or just because almost 200 superb black leaders now work with me to establish the policies of our Nation's Government. Instead, I'm here to talk to you very briefly today about some problems and to offer a challenge.

Our country does face extremely difficult problems—problems like inflation, energy shortages, inequality, discrimination, unemployment, and worldwide threats to peace. Each of these problems brings with it a tendency toward withdrawal from responsibility and sometimes crippling fears, fears that stand in the doorway between us and needed solutions. These fears of an uncertain future affect our daily lives. All of us, for instance-consumers, public officials, students, working people, business executives—hesitate to make individual sacrifices that we know are needed to fight inflation, because we are afraid that someone else may get a better deal.

We've seen the panic gasoline buying in California when everyone knows that this only makes our energy problems worse. Some people are afraid of losing their jobs. And this gives rise to racial bigotry and hatred.

All of us, if we are sane, are afraid of nuclear war, but the horror of the thought that mankind might actually be destroyed does not yet bring us together in a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood to work for peace.

If our bellies are full and we are safe and secure, these fears, among others, contribute to our own sense of selfishness and the avoidance of responsibility. People are so concerned with getting ahead, with preserving what we have, with beating the system, that we refuse to become involved with anything outside our own personal lives. By taking refuge in either complacency or hopelessness, we mistakenly believe that we can grab and hold the best deal for ourselves in a difficult world.

Our problems are serious and they are real. They will not disappear if we ignore them. There are powerful special interests in our country which feed on the apathy of ordinary citizens. They enjoy the special privilege of power and influence, and they are determined to block positive change.

Those among you who believe in change—in improvement—those who are committed to making our country a greater country, must let your voices be heard if we are to defeat these special interests.

We know we need better programs in welfare, health care, education, and jobs. We know we need to control inflation, eliminate racial discrimination, have universal voter registration, control nuclear weapons, and help bring about majority rule in southern Africa.

The Congress of the United States can either make these decisions or block these decisions—decisions which affect every person in America.

I usually do not like polls. But I would like to take a little poll right here in the quadrangle. All of you who care about jobs, peace, eliminating racism, and ensuring justice for men and women, black and white, would you please raise your hand? Now, put your hands down. That's the easy part.

Tell the truth. Now all of you who voted in the last congressional election, 1978, in November, would you raise your hand? That's much better than the national average. [Laughter]

The question I would like to ask you is, why did the others not vote? Martin Luther King, Jr., was willing to risk and even give up his life so that you might have the right to vote—the right to shape the actions of your own Government. And he was not the only one. A lot of brave people have suffered and some have died to win that basic right. But that right is hollow, that right is empty, unless you use it.

When the Brown decision was handed down 25 years ago last Thursday, the school doors did not open up the following Monday. Do you know when they really began to let little black children into the schools that had been all white? I'll tell you when it began—when the voting rights bill was passed, that's when it began.

Both political candidates and incumbents have got to know that you will both vote and act. How are we going to have leadership to fight for equal opportunity and affirmative action in jobs, schools, and housing if even the act of voting is too great an effort?

Last November, two-thirds of the registered American adults did not vote. I ask you to join me in overcoming fear about the future, in battling apathy, and in fighting for change. One place to begin, for instance, is to keep the pressure on for equal opportunity in education and jobs.

Our economy has added 250,000 jobs for black and other minority teenagers since I became President. This year, we've committed $3.4 billion for youth employment and training—twice what we were spending 3 years ago. But we must do better. That's why I've asked Vice President Mondale to head a Cabinet-level task force to review everything both government and private industry is doing in youth employment and in training.

We're going to make sure these programs work. And we're going to look for ways to get private business to do its part as well.

As part of that review, we are taking another look at our summer job program which has been seriously troubled. The level of jobs in the future will depend on the effectiveness of this program. In the meantime, I'm going to make sure it's my business to assure that this summer we have the 1 million summer jobs for youth that have been promised.

The struggle for civil rights is not over. Talk to the members of the Congressional Black Caucus. They are deeply concerned about the attitude in the United States Congress toward civil rights.

We have made progress, but we've not achieved what we need to accomplish. The Brown decision and the voting rights act tore the mask of legality from the face of racism, and you and I are never going to let this mask of racism be put back on.

Before these legal actions, there were only a few thousand black students in State colleges all' across the country. Now more than a million black students are going to colleges all over America, mostly in publicly supported colleges like this one.

These numbers do indicate that progress has been made. These numbers are important, because education leads to jobs—good jobs. And I was encouraged with what President Wilson told me on the way in from the airport about your success in getting jobs.

I'm going to tell it to you straight, because I care about the things you care about, because you and others like you are the reason that I'm President, and because one day, one of you may have the job that I hold now. I don't know if you'll want it or not. [Laughter]

Change—change does not come easy. Changing the course of society is not like changing the channel on a television set.

In 1896, for example, the Supreme Court issued the evil principle of separate but equal. It took 58 years—more than one half a century—of losing court battles, marches, arrests, courage, sacrifice, before a new court finally killed the ghost of Jim Crow. But it happened because people like you, mostly blacks, many students, made it happen.

There were a lot of heroes. One of those heroes died last week, A. Philip Randolph. He was 90 years old. He spent his long life fighting against discrimination in jobs, in defense industries, in the Armed Forces of his own country. He fought more battles than he won, but he won enough to change the face of this Nation and the lives of all of us.

His fight, your fight, our fight, goes on. We've written the promise of equality into our laws. But we must have the means and the tools now to keep that promise.

There are still unlawful, documented racial discrimination practices in housing in our country, for instance, especially in our cities. That's why we are struggling in Congress now to give Patricia Harris, the Secretary of the Housing and Urban Development Department, cease-and-desist orders, so that the victims of discrimination in housing will no longer have to have the burden, very expensive burden, of enforcing the very laws designed to protect them.

We're not going to get this change into law through Congress without your political participation. The very least we need is your vote on election day. But we also need for every Member of the Congress to know that you are interested.

We have an energy crisis in our country. Yet too few of our people, and even fewer of our politicians, are willing to face that reality.

I proposed a windfall profits tax to develop very good programs for the poor, who bear the extra burdens of rising energy costs, to provide mass transit, to give us other forms of energy, and to keep the oil companies from pocketing billions of dollars in unearned, excess profits. When the time comes for a vote in Congress, you can be sure that the oil company lobbyists will still be there. And you can provide—and no one but you and other American citizens can provide—the counterveiling force that will curb the power of the lobbyists. If your voice is not heard, the oil companies will prevail again.

The most basic human right is the right of a person to live in peace. Today, as you march down this aisle to receive your diplomas, I'm thankful that none of you will have to march off to die in battle. I'm thankful that instead of fighting a war, we're debating a new step toward limiting the nuclear arms race. Peace and freedom are both precious gifts, and that's why the fight over ratification of the strategic arms limitation talks treaty is so important. As did Martin Luther King, Jr., you must make your voices heard in this battle for sanity and for peace.

Here at home, inflation threatens all the progress we have made. Again, I want to tell it to you straight, because inflation robs the poor, it robs minorities, and it robs those just starting out in life, like you, as surely as it robs old people who have to live on fixed incomes.

Inflation forces the Government to tighten the budget and to cut back on many programs that might help some of you. And inflation destroys some of the resources of business and industry needed to provide jobs for you and other Americans.

When Congress makes the tough choices on what has to be cut, who will stand with me to put people first unless you use your influence and your power?

I did not come here today to ask you to make my job easier. I came to urge you to help me make the job of every single elected officer 'in the United States tougher, more difficult, by insisting that government be more responsive, more compassionate, and more open to hear the voices of America.

That's why I'm proud to have people like Andrew Young working alongside me every day in my job of shaping foreign policy. And I have encouraged Andy not to be timid about speaking out.

And that's why I'm proud to have people like John Lewis and Eleanor Holmes Norton with me pressing the fight against fear and for justice here at home.

These are powerful people, and they are in powerful positions. But they cannot do it unless you back them up. Their effectiveness comes from the fact that they speak for you, just as my power as President comes from the fact that I speak for you and for other Americans.

I'm not here only to let you hear my voice, but so that we in government can be sure to hear your voice, and that together our voices will be too strong to be ignored; so that together we'll have the courage to win more victories which we can place alongside the great ones that we've won.

Most of the progress that has been initiated and achieved has not come from government. This progress has come from voices outside of government that slowly but surely were united in shouting for justice and equality in our own Nation, and slowly—often after many years, even generations—government finally listened.

The long struggle for civil rights, for equal rights, for human rights has been a cycle of action, and then reaction, of lash and then backlash, for the cancer of racial injustice has always been near the heart of America.

Three hundred and sixty years ago, the first slaves were unloaded on the east coast of this continent in chains. One year later, the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock searching for freedom. The story of America has been the struggle and agony of a people trying to heal that contradiction-and it's been painful, and it's not over.

A great victory still remains to be won where we are sure about our future, where we are sure about justice, sure about equality, sure about the morals and commitments of our Nation, sure that government accurately represents what our people are and what they would like to be. It can be done. Much has been done already. If it had not, you would not be here and I would not be here.

We must continue to fight our battles and to overcome our fears together, or we will not be able to stand together for these purposes tomorrow.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Dr. King said, "I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits."

I share that audacious dream. And I ask you to join each other, and to join with me, in the struggle to make that dream come true.

Thank you very much.

NOTE: The President spoke at 11:35 a.m. in the quadrangle at Cheyney State College, Cheyney, Pa. In his opening remarks, he referred to Dr. Wade Wilson, president of the college, Stephen Shelton, senior class president, and Antoinette Blango, class valedictorian.

Jimmy Carter, Address at the Commencement Exercises at Cheyney State College Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/249471

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