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David Gergen to Elon Grads: North Carolina Becoming ‘The Poster Child of Backward-Looking Leadership’

15 minute read

I would like to depart from the tradition of showering you with personal advice. Instead, at the risk of offending some of you, I want to talk about the deepening concerns that I and many others have about the future of North Carolina, our beloved state.

Repeatedly in recent years, and especially in recent months, forces of political extremism have asserted themselves here, representing a sharp break from our past. After decades of struggle to become a just and fair people, we are sliding backward. We are not only damaging our reputation but putting our fellow citizens at risk.

Enough is enough. For those of us who have stayed on the sidelines, it is time to stand up and be counted. It is time to raise our voices against this darkness. Indeed, it is time for fellow citizens of all stripes—white and black; young and old; native and newcomer; men, women and people of chosen gender; everyone—to join forces and preserve the best of who we are as a people.

Each of you graduates has a personal stake in this fight. It has long been a badge of honor to be a native of this state and to have an Elon degree. Unless we change course, you cannot count on that in the years ahead. More importantly, this country desperately needs your talent, your energy and your leadership to lead us to higher ground.

It is said that the arc of history bends toward justice. Indeed, it does, but it won’t get there without a shove.

I was privileged to grow up in this state and can hardly emphasize how far we had once come toward a better day.

When I was young, this state was dirt poor. Our people earned on average about 71 cents to every dollar earned by other Americans. Our cities were small and insular; our rural areas were dotted with shacks. Our biggest industries, tobacco, textiles and furniture, were starting to die. And the traditions of Jim Crow hung heavily in the air, dividing whites from blacks. For years, the North Carolina Ku Klux Clan was one of the most powerful in the country.

In those days, Duke was still a regional school; UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State had fervent sports fans but were hardly in the top rank academically. Elon was a small college largely unknown.

Going north to college, as I did, classmates thought that if you were from North Carolina, you must be a hick…a hayseed…a redneck. Because you talked slower and maybe walked slower, people thought you must be stupid. It doesn’t always hurt in life—to use a George W. Bushism—to be misunderestimated; still, it always stung.

But then, slowly at first and then rapidly, North Carolina made an historic rise through the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st. Perhaps because I am from Durham, I date the rise from the creation of the Research Triangle Park in the mid-’50s. Enlightened business leaders had the foresight to see that if you built it, they would come.

An even more important turning point came with the 1960 election of Terry Sanford, the John F. Kennedy of the South. He was an electrifying force who drew me and many other young people into public service. Long before other southern leaders, he insisted that blacks, women and others at the margins should have an honorable seat at the table, too. It wasn’t a popular stand—indeed he suffered at the polls—yet he never flinched.

In his wake, influenced by Terry, came other leaders like Bill Friday and Skipper Bowles and more recently Jim Hunt, Dan Blue and, yes, Republican governors like Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin. They stood up for a New South, one that honored the rights of all while listening and respecting voices of disagreement. They believed in moderation, reaching across the aisle, building consensus and the importance of good will. North Carolina won the respect of the nation.

But I must tell you that the most credit for our rise as a people belongs elsewhere. It belongs to those courageous young men and women—mostly black, a few white—who sat in at lunch counters in Greensboro, rode buses into Mississippi, had dogs sicced on them in Birmingham and had their heads bashed in on Pettus Bridge.

We should always be grateful to them for their bravery. They not only pressured us to change our ways, they opened our eyes to the injustices in our midst. Growing up, I remember how often I was told by white elders that black folks liked to live on the other side of town, going to rundown schools and living through indignities. The civil rights movement helped me to see that was a pack of lies.

As Lincoln said about the abolition of slavery, the ending of Jim Crow and the beginnings of this new era were not only good for blacks but for whites, as well. The civil rights movement liberated people of every background to lead more fulfilling, more virtuous lives.

I also believe that when walls started coming down between the races, walls started coming down between North Carolina and the rest of America. A new economy and new society could finally take off.

Companies saw that this had become a good place to call home, to attract employees, to raise families, to pump life into our universities and to unleash a spirit of innovation.

My son Christopher is here, along with his family. From opening start-up hubs in Raleigh, Greensboro and Charlotte, Christopher can tell you firsthand how young entrepreneurs are eager to be here in North Carolina, sparking off each other, inventing new businesses, creating new jobs.

We haven’t reached our destination yet. These past few years have been especially tough on working people here. Whites still earn more than blacks, men more than women—particularly professional women. But we are still much better off than we once were.

The average North Carolinian now makes 85 cents for every dollar earned by others, and the dollar goes further due to a lower cost of living; our unemployment rate is below the national average; our universities are now first-class; Charlotte is known as the second biggest banking center in the country; Chapel Hill is one of the best places to live; Raleigh-Durham is abuzz with innovation and Greensboro is emerging as a hot destination for design.

Best of all, we are learning to live together as one people—black or white; male, female or transgender. Our children barely see the differences anymore.

That’s why so many native North Carolinians have proclaimed that we are proud to be from here and others have been proud to bring their families and businesses.

Or at least, that’s where many of us thought we were until just a few years ago.

Then suddenly, without warning, dark clouds arrived. The moderation that characterized our state—the belief among Republicans and Democrats that we are all in this together—gave way to a new, angrier, extremist politics.

Read more: Ariana Huffington to Grads: ‘Your Attention is Truly the Most Valuable Currency’

Let’s be clear: The people elected to state office got there fair and square. They had the gumption to run for public office, and voters chose them to serve. I am sure most of these newcomers also meant well.

But the signals coming out of the State Capitol in Raleigh have sent a thunderous message rolling out across America: That North Carolina is no longer a pioneer in advancing people of color, people who are gay, people living on the margins. Instead, many here want to go back, far back to a darker time.

This is not the place to re-litigate each and every issue, but what other message did state legislators intend when they:

  • Seriously restricted access to voting
  • Embraced a constitutional amendment to deny equal rights to gays and lesbians
  • Placed more restrictions on abortion
  • Enacted a flatter tax imposing heavier burdens on the less fortunate and lightening burdens for the wealthy
  • Rejected federal funding for Medicaid and unemployment benefits
  • And cut funds for public schools as well as state universities, our pride and joy.
  • This is not the North Carolina that we all loved—a North Carolina dedicated to equal opportunity and a growing, inclusive prosperity.

    Now, incredibly, we have wandered into a needless fight over the bathroom rights of transgender people. It is hard to believe that we have broken two of the cardinal rules of politics: First, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Second, leave as much power as you can in the hands of local people.

    Until now, nothing seemed really broken. In the few instances when problems arose, good folks in places like Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh found ways to settle them without fanfare.

    But the sudden rush by the state legislature to pass a law imposing a one-size-fits-all solution—and worse yet, a solution that seems to punish transgender people—has made North Carolina the poster child of backward-looking leadership. Now we are in the same headlines as Mississippi.

    Frankly, I wish the federal government had kept its paws out of this for a while longer. With more time, people of good will here and in other states might have worked out answers, not had the Feds impose their answers. Instead, we now face the very real prospect of a protracted, destructive legal fight—with our fair state held up again and again to a harsh spotlight.

    There must be creative solutions. A friend smarter than I has suggested that if, as the Governor says, the real danger is of a man assaulting a young girl in a public bathroom, the state should toughen up penalties against such assaults. Then the legislature can do the right thing: repeal HB-2!

    Until then, prominent companies will shun the state and jobs will be lost. Innovators will take their start-ups elsewhere. Entertainers and sports teams will find other venues. And as we are already starting to see, out-of-state students will hesitate to come to college here and so will prospective faculty.

    I am sure many of you here disagree. I am equally sure that some of your disagreements have merit—these are complicated issues, as the Governor says.

    But let me emphasize that, at heart, our differences are not Democrat vs. Republican nor liberal vs. conservative. Please remember that the Governor of South Carolina who lowered the confederate flag is a conservative Republican. The Governor of Georgia who vetoed a transgender bill is a conservative Republican. The Governor of Oklahoma who yesterday vetoed a bill that would criminalize abortion is a conservative Republican.

    No, the real differences here are between moderates vs. extremists, between those who want a better life for all citizens vs. those who want to go back.

    My friends, we dare not go back here in this state. No. We need to “take North Carolina back!”

    Those of you awarded degrees today will have excellent opportunities for work and further study. Employers love to hire Elon graduates: they are dedicated, smart and have good values. I know—two have been working with me at Harvard: Greg Honan, a recent undergrad, and Joshua Bonney, who is graduating this weekend from the Elon Law and Business Schools. Both are terrific.

    As you leave here, you will not only want to build careers but families. I am sure most of you will succeed there, as well.

    But I would plead with you not to stay on the sidelines as this state and this country struggle to overcome our differences and reclaim our heritage. Get in the arena, join the fight, serve and lead.

    You may think that coming of age in a place like this, you can’t make a difference. Think again. Over a century and a half ago, Levi Coffin was born in Guilford County and grew up to start the famous Underground Railroad. During the Depression, a black woman who grew up in Durham, Pauli Murray, became a civil rights activist; Pauli had a close friendship and enormous influence with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1960, black students who sat at Woolworth lunch counters here in Greensboro ignited the civil rights movement. President Obama’s Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, was born in Greensboro and tagged along with her father to watch court proceedings in Durham. The door is wide open to you, too.

    Let me share a quick personal story: When Terry Sanford was elected governor, as I said, I answered his call to public service. We were in the midst of the civil rights struggles, and Terry set up the North Carolina Good Neighbor Council to keep the peace and advance education and jobs for all.

    As an intern, I asked to be assigned to work with the head of the state council, David Coltrane. Dave grew up on a hard-scrabble farm and became state budget director. He was also a segregationist who had a change of heart and was dedicated to Terry’s vision. He was a wonderful man and except for his secretary, I became his whole team—researcher, adviser, publicist and, yes, his driver. We crisscrossed the state together creating local councils of white and black leaders, bringing people together.

    The job was so good that I returned for two more summers and loved every minute. In later years, I had the opportunity to work in the White House for four presidents—three Republican, one Democrat. But as glamorous and important as the White House was, the job that gave me the greatest pride in life was working on civil rights right here for Dave Coltrane and Terry Sanford. I will be forever grateful that maybe we made a small difference. And that’s what you can do as well when you leave here, find a way you can make a positive difference.

    Ladies and Gentlemen of the Class of 2016, congratulations again this graduation day. May you go forth from here with pride in what you have accomplished and excitement about what lies ahead.

    May you remember your friends and your teachers here at Elon and let their spirit be your guide as you build career and family.

    But may I plead with you: Please don’t stay on the sidelines as America struggles to find the best path forward. Come off the bench and get into the arena. You will find that many will disagree with you, just as many here will have disagreed with me. But don’t let your disagreements make them your enemies.

    Find common ground, work hard to respect the views of others. You will get knocked down and there will be severe disappointments. Embrace the fact that change is hard.

    But know this: if you pour your heart and soul into rebuilding a better state and nation, you will look back one day and find an inner satisfaction, a pride that you answered the call to service and leadership. As a veteran of the Civil War—three times wounded—famously told an audience years later: In our youth, our hearts were touched by fire. One day, may you look back and say that you too had your heart touched by fire.

    Good luck and God speed!

    Read more 2016 commencement speeches:

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    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’

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

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    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’

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