University of North Carolina
Prepared Remarks for Alphonso Jackson
Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Good afternoon. I am delighted to be on your campus.
And I join you in celebrating over a half century of integration. In 1951, when the color barrier was removed, this campus provided powerful leadership and inspiration for other southern universities. Remember, this was 6 years before troops entered Central High School in Little Rock, 3 years before the Brown decision, and 12 years before a court-ordered desegregation at University of Alabama.
As someone who lived under segregation, I know its tentacles were tenacious and strong.
But, miraculously, UNC slipped out from under its grip, and showed other sister universities it could be done. Now, 56 years on, we must honor that wisdom and fortitude.
And I do so honor it today.
We meet during a time when Black History Month takes center stage at Chapel Hill. This week there are university-wide lectures on the freedom riders and Black American art, and numerous discussions in classrooms and within student organizations.
I applaud that recognition.
The Black American experience transcends the horror of slavery and its tragic aftermath. In many respects, Black History is triumph out of the most extreme adversity, a powerful story of emancipation and empowerment.
We should be proud of our history.
Like many Black Americans, I personally benefited from our history. As I said, I grew up in segregation. I know what it was and what it did.
And I remember...indeed, I do remember.
But there were great African Americans who guided me and mentored my mind and soul. There were my parents, teachers, and friends.
As a runner, I saw my story in Jessie Owens.
There were books, too. I recognized myself when I read Frederick Douglass. I heard the voice of W.E.B. DuBois calling to me when I read "The Souls of Black Folk."
When I attended St. Peter's Academy for Coloreds in Dallas, I heard the liberating stories of Mary Terrell Church and George Washington Carver.
These were great figures - admirable and profound role models.
I thought of them as our Black "Founding Fathers and Mothers."
I followed the advice of our "Founders": I used my education as a way out of the slavery of segregation. When I graduated from high school, I went to Lincoln University, an historically black college.
I made the most of my experience there. Bernard Lee came there to recruit students for the voter registration march from Selma to Montgomery.
I followed him to Selma. I went, and I heard the words of Dr. Martin Luther King at the Montgomery State House. I marched with him. I suffered with him, and I was on Pettus Bridge the night Al Lingo set the dogs on us.
I still have the bite marks. I'll never forget the beating we took as the police tried to strike us down for standing up.
I marched with Ralph Abernathy, and John Lewis, and so many courageous and inspirational leaders.
We must remember that these stories - our stories -- are told far beyond our shores. Nelson Mandela learned from Dr. King's work, and transformed South Africa. I know that Dr. King was an honored figure throughout Africa, because when I taught in Ghana, my students wanted to know all about him. Kwame Nukrumah, the first President of a democratic Ghana, studied as a classmate of Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes at Lincoln University. The non-violent civil rights movement was a model for democracy in Central Europe in 1989. And, Dr. King and other great Black American thinkers still reach out to people seeking freedom in Cuba, Zimbabwe, China, and Burma.
If we ignored Black History we would be ignoring America itself: its endless struggle for freedom, equality, and inclusion.
While our story started with slavery, it does not end there. The Brown decision was a victory for all Americans because it liberated each and every one of us. Black Americans have made America strong, nobler, and better because all people must be given full rights under our constitution.
I have mentioned a number of leaders.
I worry that we may have an absence of leadership today.
And we need leadership now, in this time.
My friend, Juan Williams, has written a book titled "Enough."
I recommend it to you.
He believes that there is an absence of inspired, constructive leadership today. He calls upon each of us - you and me - to fight for greater independence, freedom, dignity, and opportunity. He asks us to do this by building upon the best in our culture and history; using the power of education, economic empowerment, and the pursuit of excellence. He challenges African Americans to remove the shackles of dependency and hopelessness. He wants nothing less than independence, pride, control of our own destiny, and creation of a culture that prizes accomplishment and achievement.
I agree with Juan that we are often afraid to raise issues and we have lost our sense of mission. I say that because I am worried about a host of issues that seem to be often overlooked or somehow accepted:
- single parenthood,
- absent fathers,
- intergenerational poverty, crime, violence, and
- lack of hope.
We must confront the sense of hopelessness.
We need to address that sense of meaninglessness - that sense of loss and despair - with real alternatives that empower and dignify.
Economic empowerment is also necessary to preserve freedom.
As you know, I have the honor of being the cabinet member at Housing and Urban Development. I took that job because I knew that economic empowerment comes with home ownership - what President Bush calls the "ownership society."
I remember what ownership meant under segregation.
Let me give you an example from across your state border.
One of our greatest leaders was Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, who was president of Morehouse College for 27 years. He was Dr. King's mentor and friend. Well, Dr. Mays was born in Greenwood County, South Carolina in 1894. At that time, under segregation, only about 10 percent of Black Americans in that county owned their own homes. And Dr. Mays mentions that fact early in his autobiography.
You see, for blacks under segregation, homeownership was a dividing line. Those who owned a home were given greater respect by fellow Black Americans...had more status...than those who rented or sharecropped or were wage hands. The homeowners were the leaders in Greenwood County. Even then, the value of home ownership was apparent.
You can understand why.
Home ownership conveyed a sense of pride.
It gave you a stake in the community.
It made you part of something bigger than yourself.
And it created a strong sense of responsibility, and even a powerful sense of family. In those days, according to Dr. Mays, men did not desert their wives, there were few illegitimate births, and the community was crime free. Even though only one in ten Black Americans in the county owned a home, there was a strong, profound sense of community.
I don't want you to think segregation was the good old days...it wasn't. But when we grew up together and fought together and struggled together we had a sense of responsibility to each other.
Our lives had a purpose.
We were on a mission to overthrow segregation.
And we did that.
Now, I worry that the loss of purpose is creating a self-imposed form of enslavement for many Black Americans.
So I have been pleased to be part of an effort to empower Black Americans through home ownership. This year there are a record number of minority homeowners: more than 51 percent of minority Americans own their own homes.
This record level of minority homeownership would have seemed impossible at the turn of the last century.
Now, with President Bush's challenge to create 5.5 million new minority homeowners by the end of the decade, the past is merely prelude.
And we're more than half-way there already.
Homeownership has been a priority for this president and my department. We want to help people who have historically been excluded from the housing market find new opportunities and options.
Homeownership is empowerment.
It is freedom.
It represents a step toward financial security.
It is the American Dream.
There are other avenues for empowerment, and education is one of them. Your college years immediately set you apart for leadership and mentorship.
Every book you read is a tool for later life.
Every class you take gives you information and knowledge for service.
Every teacher is a potential mentor, in much the way that Dr. Mays mentored Dr. King. You know, when he was president of Morehouse College, Dr. Mays opened his office every Friday for students to come to talk. I am told that Dr. King never missed a Friday.
I think that story tells us much about leadership. For President Mays, he had a duty to share his wisdom with his students, to encourage them to become agents of change. For Dr. King, he had a duty to seek out that wisdom and to apply it to life.
Education is the way out of poverty.
It is the path to opportunity and financial security.
So I strongly encourage each of you to make the most out of your collegiate experience.
I also ask you to become both a mentor and an agent of change. I urge you to seek out those who need guidance and share your life with them. Since you are already students here, I ask that you seek out younger blacks who might not be good students or who might not see college in their future. Help them to become students and then scholars. Help them to get into a college, maybe UNC, or maybe an historically black college or university.
Help them see a future of hope and promise.
Help them strive for jobs, not jail; responsibility, not selfishness; leadership, not dependency; hope, not despair.
You can become a powerful agent of change.
You can say "enough" to the self-loathing and misdirection that characterize so much of modern culture.
Dr. Mays wrote that what black men and women need are a better education, technical skills, decent jobs, adequate housing, political strength, pride, self-respect, self-identity, and a sense of solidarity.
He wrote that the central question you and I face as Black Americans is this: what can we do to enlarge our freedom, create a sense of inherent worth and dignity, and develop economic and political security?
He raised those questions with Dr. King when he was a student; they are good questions to raise now.
Those are the questions we face.
We answer those questions with the choices we make in life.
That is why Black History Month is such a valuable celebration of the Black American experience.
It is an indelible education for every American.
In this month we reaffirm that the promise of our country extends to all of its citizens.
The struggle for freedom and equality must be carried on, generation after generation, until all Americans are free.
We reaffirm that freedom's promise is fully given to each of us.