Marian Wright Edelman
The Values of Life-Long Learning, Civic Engagement, and Intellectual Leadership
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I am very honored to be back at Colorado College with your trustees, with your president, your faculty, your administration, and with your families, but most importantly with what I am sure is the best graduating class in the history of Colorado College.
Sounds like you are already doing wonderful things. But I hope that more or all of you will wander off the beaten path of career and help to define or redefine success in 21st century America, asking not, “How much can I get?” but “How much can I do without and share?” Asking not, “How can I find myself?” but asking more, “How can I lose myself in service to others?”
Service was as essential a part of my upbringing as was eating, sleeping, and going to school. Caring, black adults were buffers against the segregated prison of the outside world in my small southern town that told me as a black girl that I wasn’t important, but I didn’t believe it because my parents said it wasn’t so; my teachers said it wasn’t so; my preacher said it wasn’t so. So the childhood message I internalized was that as God’s child, no man or woman could look down on me, and I could look down on no man or woman. Couldn’t play in segregated public playgrounds or sit at drugstore lunch counters, so my father, a Baptist minister, created a playground behind our church.
Whenever he and my mother saw a need, they tried to respond. There were no black homes for the aged, so my parents began one across the street and our whole family had to help out. We didn’t like it at the time, but that’s how we children learned that it was our duty to take care of elderly family members and neighbors and that everyone was our neighbor.
Black church and community members were watchful extended parents. They reported on me when I did wrong, applauded when I did well, and they were very clear that doing well meant being helpful to others, achieving in school and reading. My siblings and I figured out that the only time my daddy wouldn’t give us a chore was when we were reading, so we read a lot. Children were taught by example that nothing was too lowly to do and that the work of our hands and of our hearts were both valuable, and of our heads. Our families, our congregations, and community made children feel useful and important, and while life was often hard and resources scarce, we always knew who we were and that the measure of our worth was inside our heads and hearts and not outside in personal possessions or personal ambitions.
I was taught that the world had a lot of problems, but I could struggle and change them; that intellectual and material gifts brought the privilege and responsibility of sharing with others less fortunate; and that service is the rent for each of us for living the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time or after you have reached your personal goals or earned that first million dollars.
Daddy always used to say, “Follow the need.” If you follow the need because God runs a full-employment economy, you will never lack for purpose worth living and dying for. Very grateful for these childhood legacies, of a living faith reflected in daily service, the discipline of hard work, and a capacity to struggle in the face of adversity.
Giving up was not a part of my childhood lexicon. You got up every morning and you did what you had to do, you got up every time you fell down, and you tried as many times as you had to until it was done right. Sounds like Colorado College has picked up on my parents. My elders had grit; they valued family life and rituals, and tried to be and expose us to good role models. Role models were of two kinds: those who achieved in the outside world and those who didn’t have much formal education or money but who taught by the special grace of their lives. Christ’s and Tolstoy’s and Gandhi’s message that the kingdom of God is within. And every day I still try to get up and be half as good as those ordinary people of grace who shared what they had, as little as it was, and often with others.
I was 14 the night Daddy died. He had holes in his shoes, with two children who graduated from college, one child in divinity school, another in college, and a vision he was able to convey to me, dying in an ambulance, that I, a young black girl, could be and do anything. That race and gender are shadows, and that character, self-discipline, determination, attitude, and service are the substance of life.
I want to convey that same vision to you today. As you graduate into an ethically polluted nation and world where instant sex without responsibility, and instant gratification without effort, and instant solutions without sacrifice, getting rather than giving, and hoarding rather than sharing are the too- frequent signals of our mass media, popular culture, political, and economical life, the standard for success for too many Americans has become personal greed rather than common good. The standard for striving and achievement has become getting by, rather than making an extra effort or helping somebody else left behind. Truth telling and moral example have become devalued commodities, and nowhere is the paralysis of public and private conscience more evident than in the neglect and abandonment of millions of our children whose futures will determine our nation’s ability to compete and lead in the new era.
I quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Protestant and the great German theologian who died opposing Hitler’s holocaust, in every speech because he believed, as I do, that the test of morality as a society is how it treats its children. Yet every day the United States flunks Bonhoeffer’s standards very hugely. Every eight seconds of the school day one of our children drops out of school. The majority of all of our children in all racial and income groups cannot read or compute in 4th, 8th, or 12th grade at grade level, and 80% of black children and almost 80% of Latino children, who are already a majority of our babies and will be a majority of our child population within 10 years, cannot read or compute at grade level and 4th to 12th grade if they have not already dropped out of school.
What is a child going to in this globalizing world if they can’t read or compute? They are going to be sentenced and/or are being sentenced to social and economic death. One in three black and one in six Latino boys born in 2001 is going to end up in prison in their lifetime. Our prisons are full of young, uneducated, hopeless young people, and mostly men of color. The cradle-to-prison pipeline, which is a preoccupation of ours, is becoming, as is mass incarceration, the new American apartheid, and if we don’t wake up and break it up, direct our children into pipelines to college in careers and successful work, we are going to lose the progress of the last 50 years of social and racial progress.
Our states are spending on average 2½ to 3 times more for prisoners than public school pupils and that’s a really dumb investment policy. We need to change course, and I hope you will help us do that. Every 32 seconds one of our children is born into poverty. When Dr. King died calling for the poor people’s campaign, we had 11 million poor children. Today we have over 14 million poor children; I think he would be calling for that and we should be calling for that, and it is time to end child poverty in America. Every three minutes an American child is arrested and every 3 hours and 15 minutes an American child or teen is killed by guns.
I want to talk for a moment about gun violence; what we should recognize that this decade is a struggle is for America’s conscience and future. The battles will not be as dramatic as Gettysburg or World War II and the bombs will shape our face in the 21st century world no less. The bombs poised to blow up America’s dream emanate from no enemies without. They are ticking away within ourselves, within our families, within our community, and within our schools that are failing the majority of our children with our lack of community and our moral drift.
I believe we have lost our sense of what is important as a people. Too many young people of all races and classes are growing up unable to handle life in hard places without hope and without steady compasses to navigate a world that is reinventing itself at an unpredictable pace, both technologically and politically. My generation learned that to accomplish anything we had to get off the dime. Your generation must learn to get off the paradigm over and over and to be flexible, quick about it, and it seems as if your new curriculum here and whatever you have been doing to tackle new problems very often is helping to prepare you for this world you are going out to.
But despite all the dazzling change, I do believe there are some enduring values and agree with the poet Archibald MacLeish; there is only one thing more powerful than learning from experience and that is not learning from experience. I feel very strongly that an adult should say to young people – and amplified by the way they live – some of the things they think are important in life that helped us survive and succeed. I did this with my own three sons and will give you some of them, and like my children, you can take them or leave them.
Lesson 1: Remember there is no free lunch in life. Don’t feel entitled to any thing you don’t sweat and struggle for, and help our nation understand that it’s not entitled to world leadership based on the past or on what we say rather than on how well we meet and perform and respond to changing world needs. I hope each of you will struggle to achieve, and not think for a moment that you have got it made even with your Colorado College degree. It may get you in the door but it won’t get you to the top of the career ladder or keep you there. You have got to work your way up, hard and continuously, and I know I don’t have to remind you, but don’t ever be lazy. Do your homework, pay attention to detail, take care and pride in your work, take the initiative in creating your own opportunity, and don’t wait around for other people to discover you or do you a favor. Don’t assume a door is closed: Push on it. Don’t assume if it was closed yesterday that it’s going to be closed today and tomorrow. And don’t ever stop learning and improving your mind, because if you do, you are going to be left behind and so is our nation.
Lesson 2: Set thoughtful goals and work quietly and systematically toward them. Don’t feel you have to talk if you don’t have anything worth mattering to say. Resist quick fix, simplistic answers and easy gains that often disappear as quickly as they come. So many of us talk big and act small. So many of us get bogged down in our ego needs and lose sight of the deeper social needs. It’s all right to want to feel important but not if it is at the expense of doing important deeds, even if you don’t get the credit. You can get a lot achieved in life if you don’t mind doing the work and letting other people get the credit. You know what you do, and God knows what you do, and that is all that should matter.
Lesson 3 is to assign yourself. My daddy use to run us crazy every day after school. He would ask if the teacher had assigned any homework and if we would say, “No,” he would say, “Well, assign yourself some.” Don’t wait around for your boss, friends, or spouse to direct you to do what you are able to figure out and do for yourself. Don’t do just as little as you can to get by, and don’t be a political bystander and grumbler. Vote. Democracy is not a spectator sport. Run for political office and if you run and win, don’t think that you and your re-election are the only job of point. If you see a need, don’t ask why somebody doesn’t do something; ask, “Why don’t I do something?” Hard work, initiative, persistence are the non-magic carpets to success for most of us.
Lesson 4: Never work just for money. Money will not alone save your soul, or build a decent family, or help you sleep at night. We are the richest nation on earth with one of the highest incarceration, drug addiction, and child poverty rates in the world. Don’t confuse wealth or fame with character. Don’t tolerate or condone moral corruption whether it’s found in high or low places, no matter its color. Be honest and demand that those who represent you be honest, and don’t confuse morality with legality. Dr. King once noted that everything Hitler did in Nazi Germany was legal. Don’t give anyone the proxy for your conscience.
Lesson 5: Don’t be afraid of taking risks and being criticized. If you don’t want to be criticized, don’t say anything, don’t do anything, and don’t be anything. It doesn’t matter how many times you fail; what matters is how many times you get up. Don’t wait for everybody to come along, because they won’t. It’s always a few people who get things done. This country desperately needs more wise and courageous shepherds and fewer sheep who borrow from integrity to find expediency.
Lesson 6: Take parenting and family life seriously, and insist those you work for and who represent you do so. Our nation mouths family values we do not practice, and your generation has got to join the chorus of insisting that we change that.
The president has proposed a $75 billion quality preschool program from birth to get children ready for school. I hope we will do everything we can to make that happen. With the majority of women in the workforce and men in the workforce, children need to be prepared to function in this society and to be ready for school. Don’t stand on the sideline, let’s get out there and insist that gridlocked Congress open up its doors and have children come in to the schoolhouse door ready to learn.
I hope you will stress family rituals and be moral examples for your children. If you cut corners, they will too. If you lie, they will too. We don’t really have a child problem in America, but we have a profound adult problem in America. I hope you will never tell, laugh at, or tolerate racial, ethnic, and religious or gender jokes, or any practices intended to demean rather than enhance another human being. Walk away from them. Stare them down. Make them unacceptable in your presence. Through daily moral consciousness, let’s all counter the proliferating voices of racial and ethnic and religious division that are rearing their heads again. Let’s face up to, rather than ignore, racial problems and poverty problems and extraordinary unjust distribution of wealth and income in our society which are America’s historic future and Achilles heel.
Let’s not spend a lot of time laying and pinning blame rather than using time constructively to heal our divisions. The great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel aptly said it: We are not all equally guilty, but we are all equally responsible for building a decent and just America.
The last topic that I really feel so strongly about, because when I was here 15 years ago it was right after Columbine, and now we are after Newtown and we’re after Aurora and we’re after Tucson, and when are we going to stand up and say we are going to stop the killing of children and of people by weapons that have no place in civilian hands? President Kennedy, after his assassination, Dr. King wrote that it was time for our nation to do some soul searching, and he said while the question, “Who killed President Kennedy?” was important, the question, “What killed President Kennedy?” was even more critical. Dr. King believed the answer was that our late president was assassinated by a morally inclement climate. It was a climate filled with heavy torrents of false accusation, jostling winds of hatred, and raging storms of violence. It is a climate where men cannot disagree without being disagreeable and where they express dissent through violence and murder. It is the same climate that murdered Medgar Evers in Mississippi and six innocent Negro children in Birmingham, Alabama 50 years ago this year.
Dr. King also said that the undercurrent of hatred and violence that made up this climate were fueled by our cultural embrace of guns. By our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim. By allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing. By allowing all of these developments we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes. The same winds of hatred, storms of violence, and easy access to and glorification of guns that Dr. King believed killed President Kennedy, would also soon kill Dr. King. On April 5, 1968, after his assassination, Robert Kennedy spoke about the mindless menace of violence in America, which again stains our land and every one of our lives. It is not, Kennedy said, the concern of any one race.
The victims of violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. No one, Kennedy said, no matter where he lives or what he does, can be certain who can suffer from some senseless action of bloodshed, and yet it goes on and on and on and on in this country of ours. Since Robert Kennedy spoke these words in 1968 he and 1,400,000 other American men, women and children have been killed by guns. The staggering civilian death toll is twice the loss of life than all the American battle casualties in all the major wars we have fought since our nation began. Guns have lethalized our despair and anger, and turned moments of emotional instability into tragic permanent loss of life. Most sadly, in the last 50 years we have lost over 166,000 children; three times the number of children died on our grounds in our country than we lost in Iraq, in Vietnam, and in Afghanistan.
When are we going to say enough? A child is shot or killed by a gun every half hour. I don’t know what has happened to us. The killing of children has become routine, even preschool children. Newtown shocked us. We lose more preschool children to gun violence every year than we lose police officers in the line of duty. Why should guns cause, or part of the deaths of 30,000 Americans each year, be the only unregulated consumer product in our nation? We regulate toy guns and teddy bears, why should we not regulate these dangerous weapons? I hope that all of you will really make your voices heard for common sense gun safety. We have efforts in Colorado, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maryland and in the U.S. Congress we have got to have common sense safety, universal background checks, and a ban on assault weapons. We are not trying to take anybody’s hunting rights, we are not taking anybody’s self defense rights away, but these guns that mutilated these children in Newtown have no place in our hands and the majority of NRA members and gun owners agree with that. Make your voices heard. Don’t let those Newtown children die in vain.
Finally, last lesson: Never think that life is not worth living and that you can’t make a difference. Don’t ever, ever, give up. I don’t care how hard it gets, and it will get very hard sometimes. There is an old proverb that says, “When you get to your wit’s end, that’s where God lives.” Harriet Beecher Stowe said when you get into a tight place and everything goes against you and you want to throw in the towel, that is when you should never give in. Don’t think you have to win immediately or even at all to make a difference; sometimes it is very important to lose for things that matter. Don’t think you have to be a big dog to make a difference, even though we need big, transforming changes in the priorities of our nation.
You can help, and we can together make it. I love my role model, Sojourner Truth, who was an illiterate but brilliant slave women who could not stand slavery or second-class treatment of women, but she never lost an opportunity to speak out and one day she got heckled by an old white man who stood up and said he didn’t believe anymore about her anti-slavery talk than for an old flea bite. She snapped back at him, and said, “That’s all right. The Lord willing, I am going to keep you scratching.” I think if we can all remember that if there are enough fleas biting the biggest dog, and there are enough of us who keep coming back when they flick some of us off, we will get gun safety regulations, we will end child poverty. You just have to bite whenever you see injustice, and if enough of us join that flea corps for children, the flea corps against gun violence, the flea corps against child poverty, we will transform our nation and make it un-American for any child to be poor, for any child to be illiterate, for any child to be unsafe and unable to grow up in our rich land. Shel Silverstein, the children’s book writer, gets my last word. He says, “Listen to the mustn’ts, child, listen to the don’ts, listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts, listen to the never haves, listen close to me, anything can happen, child, anything can be, if you dream it, if you believe in it, if you have faith in it, if you struggle in it, if you never give up.”