Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at the Tuskegee University Commencement Ceremony in Alabama

May 10, 1987

The President. Thank you, President Payton, Governor Hunt, Senator Heflin, Congressman Nichols, Mrs. James, the distinguished faculty members and honored guests, graduates to be, and, of course, proud parents. It's an honor for me to be here, sharing this special day with you. And, President Payton, after having had you and Mrs. Payton on our campus a few weeks ago, let me say, Nancy and I are honored by the invitation to be on yours. She sends her greetings. You know, the First Lady doesn't work for the Government—well, she doesn't get paid by the Government, but she works for the Government. And she's home, packing for a trip they're sending her across the country on.

This is a most fitting day for a graduation ceremony because it coincides with the day we give thanks to the individuals to whom we really owe everything, people who sacrificed and sometimes themselves went without so that we could have happier and more complete lives. Today we remember and give thanks to our mothers. I'd like to ask every woman who has a child graduating today to stand, if they would. [Applause] Ladies, we honor your children today for their outstanding accomplishment, but we know that you deserve our accolades, as well. God bless you, and thank you all for all you've done to bring this happy day about.

And speaking of mothers, Mrs. Punch, would you come up here on the platform for a moment? I know Tuskegee students have had a special one here on campus for 40 years. She's retiring this year. Mrs. Punch, love and thanks are yours today. And Nancy and I would like to give you something on behalf of all of us.

Mrs. Punch. Thank you, Mr. President.

The President. Today you young people end one phase of your life and begin another. Your parents, your teachers, all of us, are genuinely excited for you.

There's a story of a diplomat who caught a taxi in Washington, and on the long ride to Dulles International Airport, he struck up a conversation with the cabbie. And the young man happened to mention that he would be graduating in a few weeks. And the diplomat asked what kind of work he intended to pursue. "I don't know," replied the cabbie, "because I haven't decided yet." Well, once at Dulles, the diplomat caught a plane which was taking him straight to the Soviet Union, to Moscow. And arriving there, he got in a taxicab and started the long ride in, and he, speaking fluent Russian, struck up a conversation with that cabbie. And asked, the cabbie, too, by coincidence said he too would soon be graduating. And when the diplomat asked him what line of work he planned to pursue, the cabbie replied, "I don't know; they haven't decided yet." [Laughter]

Well, in a free society, as that story suggests, the individual makes the ultimate decision as to the direction of his or her life. This freedom is one of the greatest sources of strength from which this or any country can draw, a wellspring of hope that can be seen in the optimism of free people. And looking at your faces today, one cannot but have confidence in you and in our country's future. Your generation of Americans will usher the world into a new era of freedom and progress, a time when our technology and our creativity will carry us beyond anything that we can now imagine. Already computers are expanding our productivity and opening doors of opportunity only dreamed of a short time ago. Small businesses, for example, have computer facilities formerly reserved for giant corporations.

When I was attending college—now, I know many of you probably think that that was back when there were dinosaurs roaming the Earth— [laughter] —actually, they weren't; it was about the time when Moses was parting the Red Sea. [Laughter] Seriously, the goals Americans set for themselves in the days of my youth seem so modest: indoor plumbing, electricity, a family car, having a telephone or a radio crystal set. Traveling to distant cities was rare; traveling overseas was within reach of only a few. For my family, even going to a movie was not always within reach.

Today we explore technology that might someday conquer the remaining threats to our health and increase our longevity. While jet airliners carry passengers, even those of modest means, from coast to coast and overseas, our engineers are busy developing crafts that one day will take off from a runway and carry us into space, aerospace planes that will deliver us anywhere in the world in just a few hours' time. Discoveries in the field of superconductivity are coming so rapidly that research results are often out of date before they're in print. Scientists are bringing us to the day of pollution-free electric cars and magnetic trains that carry cargo and travelers at speeds of 300 or 400 miles per hour.

During my teens, one in four Americans was still on the farm; more often than not, toiling to achieve extremely limited production. It took one farmer then to feed four Americans in those days. Today that same farmer can feed 60 Americans and 15 foreigners. Those were also the days when most people, trying to earn a meager living, shut their eyes to the injustices suffered by minority citizens. It was Thomas Jefferson who once said, "I like dreams of the future better than the history of the past." Well, Americans have never lacked vision, never lacked the desire or the courage to attempt great deeds.

After the Second World War, during another time of tremendous economic and technological progress, our society moved forward to make a long-overdue commitment to extend freedom to those who had been denied, to make real the dream of a land of freedom and justice for all. In the 1950's and 1960's, great strides were made through political action. The legal sanctions of bigotry and discrimination were torn away, laws protecting the civil rights of all Americans were put in place, and racism was, in effect, outlawed. These great achievements did not come easy. They were the result of the struggle and commitment of generations and the outstanding leadership of individuals like Dr. Martin Further King. The civil rights movement earned the respect and gratitude of all good and decent Americans, even some who may at first have had reservations about what was happening. Yet changes in the law-and the political struggle itself—brought social progress that enormously strengthened the moral foundation of the United States.

The political and legal battle is obviously not over. We must remain vigilant, inside and outside of government. We must maintain our moral solidarity against intolerance and racial hatred. We cannot shrug off incidents of racial violence or interracial crime. Yet today, if black Americans are to progress socially and economically, if they are to be independent and upwardly mobile, it is imperative that they be part of the great technological and scientific changes now sweeping our country and the world. And it's just as vital for America that all her citizens march into the future together.

If there's any lesson now being learned, it is that there is a relationship between human freedom and the progress of man. The discrimination and prohibitions suffered by minorities in this country were undoubtedly some of the greatest impediments to the forward thrust of our nation. One need only look at the invaluable scientific contributions, especially in the area of agriculture, made by George Washington Carver, to wonder what more he might have accomplished had he not been overcoming prejudice as well as conducting scientific experiments. An American pioneer in heart surgery was Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, a black physician. Another black physician, Dr. Charles Drew, discovered a method of storing blood plasma. How many of our countrymen would have lived longer, more productive lives had these outstanding citizens been freer to reach their potential?

The United States, in all these cases and so many more, did not know what it was losing. Ironically, today America often isn't aware of what it's gaining by having opened doors that were long closed. Our citizens may know of the three black astronauts now in line for becoming [upcoming] shuttle missions. Yet how widely known is it that a large portion of NASA's work force is black, including 422 engineers and scientists? One of them, David Hedgly, was responsible for a breakthrough in computer graphics a few years ago, solving a problem that had confounded the scientific establishment for years. The press release announcing the accomplishment did not—as was proper—mention his race. Dr. Jewell Plummer Cobb is president of California State University at Fullerton. She's a distinguished scientist who's known for her work in cell physiology.

There's nothing wrong with the attention focused on black athletes and entertainers; I would be the last one to play down the role of entertainers. [Laughter] However, I think it's high time the media and the rest of America began paying more attention to those black citizens who are prominent in other professions, as well. We must be concerned about the perception children of every race are developing about themselves and about others. Certainly, problems in the black community cannot be covered up or ignored; yet rather than dwelling almost exclusively on the negative, let's make certain our children see stories of black successes and triumphs. And there are many from which to choose.

Today there are some 843,000 minority owned businesses in the United States. Over and above what they buy and sell in the private sector, the Federal Government is doing an unprecedented $6 1/2 billion in business with them. Black entrepreneurs often overcome great adversity. Their stories lift the human spirit and give credit to individuals who should serve as role models for our children. Coming up, for example, is National Small Business Week. An engineering and technical services company named Analysis Group Incorporated, has been selected for distinction. The president of the company, Arthur Paul, received his bachelor's and master's in engineering from Howard University and his doctorate from the University of Virginia. As our country moves into the 21st century, it's crucial that more young black Americans follow the path of Dr. Paul and of our black scientists, physicists, and mathematicians. America must not be denied the benefits of the creativity and talents of its citizens.

Our administration is moving aggressively in a number of fronts. We have an agenda that is aimed not only at overcoming the problems of today but also preparing the ground for black economic independence in the technological era that we're entering. We threw out the old, inefficient CETA [Comprehensive Employment Training Act] program and put in its place the Job Training Partnership Act, which provides more training for every dollar spent. It was Booker T. Washington who said: "The world cares very little about what a man or woman knows; it is what the man or woman can do .... "Well, our new training programs are designed to provide marketable, up-to-date skills.

We've done our best to put in place spending and tax policies that will keep our economy healthy and growing. Certainly, black unemployment has remained far too high and is totally unacceptable, yet there are some figures that give us hope. Black employment has increased 1.8 million since 1980, and today more black Americans are working than ever before and a higher percentage of the black work force is employed than at any time in this decade. Since the economic recovery began, about one in seven of all new jobs being created has gone to black Americans. I care deeply about the unemployed. I saw my father suffer from the pain of not being able to support his family. I witnessed what it did to him and his self-respect and to my mother. And it's not something I or anyone in the administration take lightly. And I can assure you, we won't be satisfied till every American who wants a job has a job and is earning a decent living.

Our preparation for the next century goes far beyond our efforts to build an economy that will provide jobs for the unemployed. By our campaign for excellence in education, we have not been offering easy answers in this regard; instead, we set out to mobilize the public, to get the people involved in their local schools and in the education of their children, to encourage them to insist on high standards and discipline. And let's not kid ourselves—we can't expect children to excel in an environment of drugs and permissiveness. All Americans should stand shoulder to shoulder against this evil that undermines the moral fiber of the Nation and attacks our youth. It's time to get drugs off our campuses and out of our schoolyards. We want to make certain that by the time young people get to college, they're of sound mind, good character, and have the basic educational skills to carry them into any field they choose.

We're also engaged in an effort to encourage them as to what choice to make. At the college level, we're helping to provide incentives for black Americans to choose math, engineering, and the sciences. And next year, in response to our direction, the National Science Foundation—whose budget is being doubled—will move to ensure the widest participation in the sciences. This includes funding comprehensive projects to improve the teaching of science and engineering to pre-college and undergraduate students in minority schools.

And this isn't just a job for the Government. One of the goals we've set for ourselves in recent years has been to enlist the citizenry and private corporations in such community-building programs. Today there are partnerships between Texas Engineering Experiment Station and Prairie View A&M University, between Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and Jackson State University, and others that provide hands-on engineering and scientific experience to minority students. We're doing our best to encourage these partnerships, whether they take the form of apprentice programs or consulting arrangements or joint research. In the public sector, the full support of our administration has been thrown behind the effort to greatly strengthen the research capabilities of black institutions of higher learning. In 1986, 27 Federal agencies and departments invested more than $600 million in our nation's historically black colleges, much of it in the form of research grants and projects.

One example: Tuskegee competed for, and won, a $2 1/4-million Navy contract to help in the development of automobile, aircraft, and spacecraft engine components. More of Tuskegee's students are enrolled in engineering and architecture than any other area of study. Furthermore, among your faculty and staff, in keeping with the standards established by Dr. Carver, are some of the best higher education has to offer in electrical, mechanical, chemical, and aerospace sciences. Tuskegee has a tradition of top-quality scientific research from its earliest days.

Dr. Carver once said: "Race and creed find no recognition in the eyes of the Deity when He bestows His generous gifts." Dr. Carver not only said that; he proved it. Tuskegee made history with its agricultural research, which continues even now to be a source of pride. Yet let me suggest that this fame may someday be surpassed by contributions your institution will make in the field of aerospace engineering.

Audience member. Yeah!

The President. He's ready. [Laughter] This potential is the reason the George C. Marshall Flight Center and other similar organizations, as well as private corporations, are humming around here. This is the reason NASA donated to this institution some of its most sophisticated aviation-related computers last year. And, of course, it is the reason that you have received $9 million in support from the Department of Education for the opening of this Aerospace Science and Health Education Center, this center I was honored to inaugurate shortly before joining you here today. This center, of course, is dedicated to the memory of one of this country's great patriots, a hero of three wars, America's first black four-star general, Daniel "Chappie" James. He has been mentioned here repeatedly. As a youth he washed airplanes for 25 cents. He earned his degree here at Tuskegee and helped train the famous Tuskegee Airmen, pilots who during the war destroyed 261 enemy aircraft and won a basketful of Distinguished Flying Crosses.

Some of you may be aware that back in 1944, in the midst of that great conflict, I narrated a film about these brave pilots. I can't tell you how proud I am to be an honorary Tuskegee Airman. And if they hadn't made me wear this robe, you'd have seen I was wearing the button in my lapel. [Laughter] The skill and courage of these individuals, Chappie James and the Tuskegee Airmen, is part of an heroic tradition, from the Revolutionary War, when some 5,000 black Americans fought gallantly for our country's independence, to Pearl Harbor, where a black seaman named Doric Miller was one of the first Americans to bring down an enemy aircraft. Doric Miller, the Tuskegee Airmen, and others who fought and often paid the supreme sacrifice for their country did so in a segregated military. Their courage and patriotism undoubtedly helped bring an end to this outrage.

Today one of the greatest strengths of our military is that it is one of the most successfully integrated institutions in the country, an open door of opportunity to all citizens. Over 10 percent of the Army's officers are black, as are 34 percent of its sergeants. Blacks are in more positions of managerial and command authority in the military than in business, education, journalism, or any other part of government. Chappie James' mother once predicted: "Someday there will be so many black people doing so many things that are noteworthy that it will no longer be newsworthy." Nowhere is it more apparent than in the Armed Forces.

Twenty-nine of the Army's active-duty generals are black. There have been two black four-star generals: Chappie James in the Air Force and Roscoe Robinson, Jr., in the Army. And in fact, I have nominated another black general, Bernard Randolph, for his fourth star. It's now pending congressional approval. Again, Chappie was right, and his mother was right. This officer's race no longer even makes the news. By the way, General Randolph is with us today, as you've just seen. And so, General, congratulations!

The military is seen by many as an avenue for advancement, a job where individual merit will be recognized and rewarded. The technological training and skill development provided in the military is some of the best in the country. And that could mean learning about car and truck engines. It could also mean learning to build bridges or space stations. Astronaut Guy Bluford was an ROTC graduate who went into the Air Force after receiving a B.S. from Penn State. While in the service, he earned his doctorate degree in aerospace engineering, with a minor in laser physics, from the Air Force Institute of Technology. I might add that he was at the White House on the day we announced the initial grant for the Chappie James Center here in Tuskegee.

These Americans in the military service of the United States do us proud because of their achievements and because they, like the brave men who went before them, are willing to put their lives on the line to defend our country. With us today are 27 newly commissioned ROTC second lieutenants who will soon be joining the ranks. Would they please stand? [Applause] You young people are a great source of pride to all of us—your families and your fellow students and your countrymen. I know I speak for all of us here when I tell you that we're confident that you will never let us down. And let me pledge to you, we will never let you down. As an old ex-second lieutenant of horse cavalry, I consider it an honor to salute you. Thank you.

I'd like to close with one story. Being from this campus, you know of Chappie and the Tuskegee pilots. I'd like to speak with you of a man whose name is not so well known as these—Ensign Jesse Brown, the first black naval aviator. He was a husband and a father, a deeply religious man, an individual who studied engineering at Ohio State and left college to become a naval aviator. He loved to fly. In December 1950, Ensign Brown was a member of Fighting Squadron 32, aboard an aircraft carrier somewhere off Korea. He flew 20 close air support missions, providing cover for our outnumbered marines at the Chosin Reservoir. The battle was fierce; our men on the ground were in a desperate situation.

On December 4th, 1950, Ensign Brown's aircraft was hit while making a strafing run against the enemy. With tremendous skill, he managed to crash land on a rough, boulder-strewn slope. He survived the crash, waving to his friends as they circled overhead. They knew he was in trouble when he remained in the cockpit even as smoke began to billow from the wreckage. Finally, a fellow member of his squadron could stand it no more. As the others attacked and held off advancing enemy troops, Lieutenant (jg.) Thomas Hudner ignored the dangers of the mountain terrain and enemy troops and made a deliberate wheels-up landing. He ran to Ensign Brown's plane, now erupting in flames, and found his friend alive, badly injured, and trapped in the cockpit. Lieutenant Hudner shoveled snow with his hands to keep Jesse from the flames, burning his own hand badly in the process. Finally, over the battle-scarred terrain, came a marine helicopter. Lieutenant Hudner, joined by a crewman from the helicopter, struggled desperately to get Jesse out.

Now, I would like to tell you that they both made it and that, over the years, they have been best of friends, sharing family outings, caring about one another. But that was not to be. Ensign Jesse Brown died on that slope in Korea. When he risked his life for those besieged marines, Jesse Brown didn't consider the race of those he sought to protect. And when his fellow pilots saw him in danger, they did not think of the color of his skin. They only knew that Americans were in trouble. Ensign Brown was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, and the Purple Heart; Lieutenant Hudner, the Congressional Medal of Honor. But perhaps the most moving tribute was paid by Ensign Brown's shipmates. In a memorial printed in the ship's paper, they wrote: "We bid farewell to a Christian soldier, a gentleman, shipmate, and friend. He was a credit not alone to the Navy but to our country. His courage and faith in Almighty God shone like a beacon for all to see. Hail and farewell."

Today, you become part of the continuing saga, the history shaped by individuals like Dr. Carver, Chappie James, and Ensign Jesse Brown. What you do with your lives will keep America shining like a beacon of opportunity and freedom for all to see. Thank you for letting me be with you here today. Good luck in the years ahead, and God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 11:35 a.m. in the auditorium at the General Daniel "Chappie" James Center. He was introduced by Dr. Benjamin Franklin Payton, president of Tuskegee University. Dr. Payton also presented the President with an honorary doctor of laws degree. The President presented flowers to Pauline Punch, who served as secretary and executive assistant to three Tuskegee University presidents. Following the ceremony, the President went to Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, AL, for lunch at the Base Operations Building. He then traveled to Fayetteville, NC.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the Tuskegee University Commencement Ceremony in Alabama Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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