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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Leonard's Speech

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

Remarks by Walter J. Leonard, Special Assistant to the President, Harvard University, President-Elect, Fisk University, Memorial Oration honoring the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., Cambridge Public Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts, January 14, 1977.

The remainder of broken promise

The ebbing life of crippled dream,

The ravaged body of raped desire,

Brings me here tonight.

A dream that is being kept alive,

By an unflinching hope,

By the unyielding faith,

And by a sustained belief in the value of self.

A dream nourished by the blood of ancestors,

Nurtured by the joy and sadness of struggle,

Tested by the flame of oppression,

Tempered by meanest and inhumanity,

That crippled dream brings me here tonight,

Resolved to try all over again. *

Franklin D. Roosevelt, speaking in a message to Congress on January 6, 1941, enunciated the doctrine of the four essential human freedoms: The first being freedom of speech and expression; second, the freedom of worship; third, the freedom from hunger and want; and fourth, freedom from fear or insecurity.

Perhaps more than any other people, Black Americans endorsed these principles of human rights. But for Black people, a fifth freedom was essential. Black pioneers and Black martyrs like Martin Luther King, Jr. lived an experience of which Roosevelt was incapable. They knew that as an African person, in European America--a Black person in white America--in order to assert a claim to these four freedoms, we had to demand a fifth: the freedom to demand and expect to enjoy freedom. For unless racial discrimination, economic segregation, political exploitation and social humiliation were abolished, we were still slaves, still eliminated from the America that called itself free. For Black people to enjoy full citizenship in America, this country had to abandon one of its most traditional licenses; it had to turn from one of its most blatant and continuing sins--the historic policy of neglecting the very principles on which it was founded.

Our ancestors knew--and Martin Luther King taught us--that the United States is a strange, hypocritical and schizophrenic nation. It will gladly and quickly spend billions of dollars and sacrifice thousands of lives to illegally enforce its doctrines on foreign soil--where it has no right or jurisdiction--while vigorously refusing to provide the privileges and immunities of freedom for millions of its own people right here at home!

It was into this ferment--this crucible of trials--this Dantean inferno of misdeeds that Martin King, Jr. came, labored and died. And it is fitting that we celebrate the birth of our fallen leader. I make bold to say that Martin Luther King, Jr. was the one genuine prophet developed by the Western World and the United States of America. The fact that he was Black--elevates and illuminates this occasion.

One of the reasons we pay homage to our heroes is to seek for some kernel of strength and wisdom. We ask what marriage of chance, circumstances and events electrified their movements or guided their noble deeds? Martin King, Jr.--like most Black people born before 1964--just 13 years ago--spent his early life being seared and seared by signs. His daily life was greeted or haunted by signs which read: "No Colored Allowed," "White Only," "Colored Service in the Rear," "White Ladies," "Men," "Women," and "Negroes."

While these signs were intended to warp the personalities and feed doses of inferiority complex to Black people, they also served to inspire outrage and resolve. They ignited anger and courage. Each sign and every act were daily reminders that the philosophy of Dred Scott-a Black man has no right that a white man must respect--was as alive in the 1960s (and, yes, in the 1970s) as it was in the 1850s.

Black people could not gain lodging in the hotels of the cities; nor could they quench their thirst at a drinking fountain--even in a public building. These signs bolted the door to the new and well-equipped schools near Martin King's home, and denied him a seat on the yellow bus that carried the white children to those schools. Those signs were calculated to effectively impress upon the mind of every Black person that he and she had been meticulously read out of the Declaration of Independence and reduced to three-fifths of a person (and then only for the voting privileges of white people) by the framers and adopters of the Constitution of the United States. We were told, with pellucid clarity, that the United States held no sense of urgency regarding the status of its black citizens, even while it showed a great moral outrage over the treatment and the conditions of life for millions of white people many thousands of miles away from its shores.

Jim Crow in the South, and his sophisticated cousin, J. Crow, Esquire, in the North, were constantly telling us that we needed less money, less education, less political representation; and they even moved us from communities and neighborhoods and told us that we lived in ghettoes.

Dr. King and many others wanted to believe that if we could tear down the discriminatory signs, obtain some favorable rulings by the courts and push the Congress to pass remedial legislation, the nation would react in accord with those precepts and principles of its boasted religious ethic. It was hoped and by some believed, that the vast majority in this country would opt to develop a nation undergirded by tolerance, forgiveness, non-violence and love.

Thirteen years have passed since the haunting and searching voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. rang out with those memorable words intoning his dream and his hope, "that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: we hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal."

It has been 13 years since President John F. Kennedy told the Congress of the United States:

"The Negro baby born in America today--regardless of the section of the state in which he is born--has about one-half as much chance of completing college--one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man--twice as much chance of becoming unemployed--about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 per year--a life expenctancy that is seven years less--and the prospects of earning only half as much."

We remember all too well how Dr. King led black people in the 1960s. Confronted by the horrid facts of inequality and impoverishment, forced by fear, frustration and loss of faith, we manifested our request for reform by moving into the streets of this nation. As a consequence of these actions, some changes were made. In a sense, much of the 1960s was therapeutic for the country. But what has happened since that time? What has happened to those efforts?

According to one analyst, for Black people the

"[R]apid advances of the 1960s were [of short duration]. When the economic policies which led to the 1968-1970 recession [took] hold, social and economic progress for Black Americans became seriously undermined. Even worse was that sizeable group of Blacks not able to benefit from the economic gains of the 1960s."

Economics professor and former Governor of the Federal Reserve Board Andrew F. Brimmer has observed that between 1969 and 1976, and more particularly during the most recent five years,

"[T]he distribution of money income in the United States has become more unequal, and economic equity has deteriorated."

He asserts that within that period,

"...income has been redistributed so as to favor whites versus Blacks; better versus the poor; and the newer regions of the country versus the old."

These data indicate the recent change and current status of Black Americans as follows:

*Median income of Black families, having reached 61 per cent of white median in 1969, fell back to 58 per cent in 1974.

*Unemployment among Blacks was 13.9 per cent in 1975, compared to 8.9 per cent for all persons reported.

*Between 1960 and 1970, several millions of Black people rose above the federally-estimated poverty level. However, between 1969 and 1974, only 81,000 additional Black people broke out of the poverty cycle.

One writer has observed that while our entire group faces a pressing need, the economic situation with respect to Black teenagers, women and older people is desperate. He declares that for these persons:

"...job prospects and economic status have not advanced in step with the rest of American society. The position of Black teenagers has worsened in the past 15 years.

"In 1960, the jobless rate for black youths was 45.5 per cent. It declined to 29.1 per cent in 1970, but jumped to 38 per cent in 1975.

"Young blacks have traditionally held jobs in urban centers and related to service and retail industries. But in recent years, these employers have been relocating toward the suburbs, leaving black youth behind in the central core.

"For black women, the period from 1964 to 1970 was one of great economic progress, as a large number moved out of low-income, unskilled jobs in private households and farm work, and succeeded in becoming clerical and technical workers. Clerical occupations, however, are at the lower end of white-collar work; thus, black women have been particularly susceptible during the 1974-5 recession to layoffs and involuntary part-time employment.

"Older blacks have also been left behind, perhaps because they could not benefit from the rising educational levels, as have young blacks. By 1969, 30.5 per cent of all non-whites 65 years or older were still illiterate. In 1973, 25.5 per cent of all non-whites 55 to 64 years old earned less than $2500 per year; this income applied to only 8.1 per cent of whites the same age. Poverty remains rampant in the older black community. In 1974, the number of blacks classified as living below the poverty level was 36.4 per cent for those aged 65 or older, and 41.9 per cent for older black women.

Facing the reality of economic inequity and its somber side-effects, I am sure that Rev. King would urge the following:

That this nation come to grips with the immediate and pressing need to enforce federal statutes and Court decisions which mandate an end to racial discrimination.

Lyndon Johnson said it very well:

"Freedom is the right to share, share fully and equally in American society--to vote, to hold a job, to enter a public place, to go to school. It is the right to be treated in every part of our national life as a person equal in dignity and promise to all others.

"But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and to do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.

"You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, 'You are free to compete with all the others [many of whom have been riding on your back for years], and still justly believe that you have been completely fair."

In my judgement, the record is transpicuously clear, the nation, its institutions and those who made the decisions to grant or deny opportunity have been grossly unfair to those persons who have suffered from the real affirmative discrimination, both past and present, in American society. And we know that the mere enactment of Congressional legislation, or the issuance of a Presidential Executive Order is not enough. An Act, in and of itself, is not the essence of reform. Laws and Orders are not yet self-executing.

We must remind the nation and its institutions that Congress was not colorblind when it enacted the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution. We must insist that the country recognize that the United States Supreme Court was talking about Black people and racial discrimination when it pronounced the Brown decision in 1954.

Too many persons, many of whom are federal and state officials, elected or appointed to many of the most responsible positions in this country, would lead us to abandon the efforts which began to show some positive results during the Martin King era.

What we hear today in Boston and Chicago and Detroit and Louisville and Washington is a plea to an outdated sentiment and an appeal to ignorance. We hear politicians saying along with the rabble and the hatemongers that to enforce rules which would provide quality education, quality housing, equal employment and social justice would be to punish the white people of America. The deep-down prejudices of too many people are being dragged to the surface and in the process submerging rational consideration and thought and understanding. What we face today is not only the same fight we have been waging for years, but the additional task of informing Americans that to obey the law of the land is not punishment, but freedom! We must inform America that true educational opportunity is not found on the speedometer of a school bus. In many districts, in fact, the amount of bussing formerly used to maintain segregated schools. We are asking the nation as a whole to unite. We have said to the country that unless we face the opportunities and the problems as a nation, willing to share and solve, we shall surely all share in a future of greater chaos and deterioration.

I, for one, am convinced that this country needs only the will to eliminate poverty. It is a matter of priorities and it is a matter of honesty. This nation has the means. We have both the human and physical resources.

Shall we as a nation continue to confound the issues?

Shall we send rockets to Venus or feed the poor?

Shall we send moon stations to outer space or repair our cities?

Shall we engage in another unnecessary and stupid war or build needed schools?

Shall we build airplanes that won't fly or shall we build hospitals?

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