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  • Commencement 2016

Bill Moyers to Grads: President Johnson Didn’t Think We’d Have a Black President Yet

8 minute read

Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you, dean, for that introduction.

Thanks to the faculty and administration for their work today. And thanks to you for having me. I will be brief. But I am grateful to be sharing this occasion with you.

In March, when it appeared that President Obama was not going to be here, your president called me and asked me if I would speak in case he didn’t come. So I prepared a 30-minute speech for that occasion. When the President called and said he is coming, I prepared a 15-minute speech to follow him. And after listening to him today, it’s down to five minutes. So you can truly relax.

But I want to tell you, and actually the little talk I am going to give, was written a few minutes ago, after I reflected on what the President said. It touched me and my own life in ways I want to share with you, to emphasize you never know where you are going, what you will be doing or what you will have the chance to do.

When the President mentioned the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, I recalled being in the White House as President Johnson’s domestic assistant, by his side when he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and, a year later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

I remember thinking on both occasions that it had taken a hundred years since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation for another president to fulfill it.

The next year, when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, I was struck by the thought that it had also taken a hundred years since the Civil War ended and a President signed the Voting Rights Act fulfill the freedom that was won on the battlefield.

So when the President said today change comes slowly, he was right. Too slow at times, but he was right. Change comes slowly. It doesn’t come easily. And it comes from the bottom up. Because in those hundred years, there were martyrs and lynchings and beatings and little girls in white dresses torn to pieces by a bomb in their Sunday School; burning churches at night; racial insults and continuing humiliation of the black African Americans in our country.

Change comes slowly, and when it comes, it comes from the bottom up, from people who have put their lives and their convictions and their commitments on the line. And I was thinking that as the President spoke today.

I also remembered that after [Johnson] signed the Voting Rights Act, I asked him: “Do you think that means we will have a black President in our lifetime?”

He said, “Oh, no. Too much hatred out there. Too much resentment. Too much history. He said, “We’ll have a woman president before we have a black President.”

On election night in 2008, as I turned the television set off, I thought I heard a thumping on the ceiling above me, and a voice with a Texas drawl, saying, “One down, one to go.”

My hunch is that, if President Johnson were around this November, being from Texas, he’d vote 10 times to fulfill the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Read more: Samantha Power to Grads: ‘Invest Yourself Fully. Get Close.’

The second thing I thought about as [Obama] was talking was the simple fact that the man for whom your university is named, Henry Rutgers, a hero of the American Revolution, a man who led his regiment at the inauguration of George Washington, who rode in the battle of Harlem, almost was killed in the Battle of White Plains, became a great military administrator, was preparing New York for the defense in 1812, of a possible invasion from Britain.

Henry Rutgers, who had saved your university, saved it after it had been closed, when it was the Queens College. It had been closed twice. Its doors were shut. He gave it a $5,000 bond whose interest was enough to open the doors and keep it going.

And grateful trustees, grateful trustees who were probably hoping to be in his will, renamed Queens College after him. Rutgers College.

And as the President spoke today, I kept thinking that Henry Rutgers owned slaves. His family, his father, his grandfather were slave owners like so many of the Dutch Americans who came here to settle New Amsterdam. Henry Rutgers owned slaves.

The workers he managed at the brewery on the lower side of Manhattan, what is now the Bowery, included slaves. One of his kinfolk on their property had three black slaves indicted for conspiracy. One was transported. One was hung. And one was burned alive.

Henry Rutgers owned slaves.

And as Obama talked, I thought change does come. You were privileged today. And I was privileged to be here, to hear a brilliant speech by a man appealing to the Enlightenment, appealing to reason, appealing to thought, appealing to civility, and appealing to the best of us in a time in a mean season when others are appealing to the worst of us.

You had a black President speak today, as nobly as any President ever spoke, on a spot where once upon a time, he might have been a slave.

New Brunswick was the center of the slave holding region that ran from Trenton to Elizabeth. And today you heard a man who stood on this spot; a spot of freedom, of human rights, and of great promise. Those are the thoughts that went through my mind today. So I threw away my 30- minute speech and my 20-minute speech, and just wanted to tell you what was going through my mind.

I wish I had time to hear what is going through yours.

I want to close by reading you something that I read for a few years when I was an organizing founder of the Peace Corps in 1961, and its first deputy director. And I was profoundly moved at that time. I was profoundly moved at that time by a line, by a passage from Chaim Potok’s marvelous little novel that we gave to every Peace Corps volunteer heading out across the world to represent our country without a uniform, without a rifle, without a gun.

And I would go to the training camps. I came here to Rutgers for the first training camp of the first Peace Corps contingent, and I would always read to the departing volunteers this very brief which I pass on to you.

“Human beings don’t live forever, Reuven, We live less time than it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value is there in human life.”

There is so much pain the world.

What does it mean to have to suffer, if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye?

I learned a long time ago the blink of the eye in itself is nothing.But the eye that blinks, the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the human being who lives that span, he or she, is something. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

Thank you.

Read more 2016 commencement speeches:

Anne-Marie Slaughter: ‘Care Is as Important as Career’

Arianna Huffington to Grads: ‘Your Attention Is Truly the Most Valuable Currency’

Barack Obama: ‘Passion Is Vital, But You’ve Got to Have a Strategy’

Cory Booker to Grads: ‘Tell Your Truth’

Darren Walker to Grads: ‘Stand For Something’

Earl Lewis: ‘Never Confuse The Attainement of an Education with What It Means to Be Educated’

Eboo Patel to Wake Forest Grads: ‘The Only Shame Is in Stagnation’

Hank Azaria to Grads: Ignore Your Instincts ‘at Your Own Peril’

Hoda Kotb: ‘You’re the Sum Total of the Five People You Spend the Most Time With’

J.K. Simmons to Grads: ‘Live in the Moment’

Jane Goodall to Grads: ‘Remember to Live to Your True Human Potential’

Jill Bolte Taylor: ‘We Have the Power to Choose Who We Want to Be’

Lin-Manuel Miranda to Grads: ‘Your Stories Are Essential’

Madeleine Albright: ‘Everyone Must Participate in Solving Shared Problems’

Mahershala Ali to Grads: ‘We Are All Co-Creators of Our Respective Destinies’

Michael Bloomberg: ‘An Open Mind Is the Most Valuable Asset You Can Possess’

Michelle Obama to Grads: ‘Excellence Is the Most Powerful Answer You Can Give’

Obama to Grads: Building Walls Is ‘A Betrayal of Who We Are’

Rita Dove to Grads: ‘Instead of Advice, I Will Give You Wishes’

Russell Wilson: ‘Go Make It Happen’

Samantha Power to Grads: ‘Invest Yourself Fully. Get Close’

Sheryl Sandberg: ‘Finding Gratitude and Appreciation Is Key to Resilience’

Vivek Murthy: ‘Live a Connected Life’

William Foege to Grads: ‘Every Day We Edit Our Obituaries’

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