Forty Eight years ago today I was honored by my Dartmouth brothers and selected to give a commencement speech. It is believed to be the first time that there had ever been a black speaker at a Dartmouth College commencement – here is the full text of that speech:
Mothers and Fathers, Brothers and Sisters, Mr. President, Faculty and Guests:
We are gathered here this morning to celebrate what is supposed to be a great day, a day of significance, and a day of meaning for all those involved. But what does this day mean for us, what does this day mean for us, the Black students who have survived the Dartmouth College experience?
This day means that we recognize ourselves as being the result of years of labor and sacrifice, the labor of fathers, the sacrifice of mothers, the encouragement and help from brothers and sisters, the support of friends. What we owe for this labor, this sacrifice, this encouragement, this help, this support, we can never pay back in material terms no matter how hard we try. For what we have been given can never be measured in terms of money, the god of fools. For what we have been given was given in the spirit of love and we must return in the same that love, otherwise we have not survived the Dartmouth experience, but rather we have been crushed by it.
If we are to make the years of labor and sacrifice meaningful, then we must dedicate ourselves to our people. We must dedicate ourselves to Black freedom and Black peace of mind, no matter what the obstacles, no matter what the barriers, no matter what the side alleys that lead to dead ends of frustration and negation. We must dedicate ourselves to putting an end to the sad humor of the contradiction of a Black man in a white man’s school trying to learn how to free himself.
We were made to be free, Black men and Black women were not meant to be anybody’s hand servants or slaves, we were meant to stand tall and proud under the sky of liberation without any clouds of oppression or injustice on the horizons of our minds. And if we are to be free once more, then we must not be surprised by whatever America tries to do to us. Three hundred years of oppression, three hundred years of blood, three hundred years of brutal and inhuman treatment should have taught us that much.
But, when we were first put in chains, our ancestors were surprised; when Reconstruction was found to be a sick white joke we were surprised; when Marcus Garvey was railroaded to prison, we were surprised; when Emmett Till and Mack Parker were murdered, we were surprised; when Malcolm X, the prince of blackness was murdered in cold blood we were surprised; when Martin Luther King, the prince of peace, was killed were still surprised; when Freed Hampton and Mark Clark were killed by the animals that masquerade as Chicago police, were we were still surprised; and even last month, when more of our brothers and sisters were shot down in August and Jackson, we were surprised.
Well, we can’t be surprised any longer. What goes around comes around, and it’s time for the other folks to be surprised.
We have been told to believe in America, to believe that there was something deep down inside America that was good. And what has happened?
Black brothers die daily in the Indochina madness that is just another example of the sickness of America spilling out all over the world, and still be try to believe; Nixon tells Black people that he doesn’t give a damn about us, that he would rather put a white man on the moon than put food into a Black (or white) child’s stomach, and still we try to believe; the Congressional Records of the United States detail the construction and planned use of concentration camps and still we are supposed to believe.
The time has now come for us to believe in ourselves. The time has come to make ourselves free. Our stars of freedom still shine and our saints of righteousness do live. You only have to look around.
The stars are in the eyes of little Black babies and children who were born destined only for freedom, the saints of righteousness are the mothers and fathers, the brother and sisters who have provided the strength for Blackness to survive in the face of the forces of evil.
The time is coming, the time has got to come, when freedom will be seen in our smiles, and our Blackness will mean freedom. We have to believe this, because this is the only reality left to us.
That is what we are about, that is what today means for us. To best sum up our feelings though, I would like to quote a poem written by Brother Herschel Johnson, of this class, as this poem speaks for the souls and spirits of all of us:
For you mothers with dirt-rough hands
For you with backs aching from bending
And flushing and scrubbing
For all you women on transit
You with brown bags under your arms
Bringing home the leavings of white folks
Bringing it to your children
For all you Black mothers and fathers
Who had to live with humility
And yet have had the pride to survive
For you Black mothers and fathers who raised up
Your men are now with you.
Thank you and may a beautiful Black peace always be with you.