For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
May 19, 2003
NSC Advisor's Remarks at Mississippi College Law Commencement
First Baptist Church
431 North State Street
May 16, 2003
To All of You: a Sincere Congratulations for a Job Well Done! I will always remember my own commencement. I remember the pride written across the faces of my family members. I remember looking at my classmates and wondering if I would ever again find such close friends. I also remember wanting the whole thing to be over with. I do not remember a single word the speaker said. You won't either.
So my duty today is not to say something you will find profound 20 years from now. It is to say something you find interesting for the next 20 minutes. Anything beyond that is a bonus.
I am neither a lawyer nor a Baptist. But I feel very at home before you. Because I am a strong believer in the transforming power of both education and faith. And I believe that as this school has minted you into lawyers it has endowed you with enormous opportunities and enormous responsibilities.
First, as educated people and people who may be called upon in the administration of justice you have an obligation to be open minded. You have learned how to ask questions, assess evidence, and draw conclusions. You have learned the value of reasoned debate the role of doubt in reaching a conclusion and that it often helps to seek out those who do not think like you do. An "Amen" chorus is satisfying in the short term, but it is not edifying in the long term. By being open to rethinking ideas you once held sacrosanct you will be better attorneys and better citizens.
Second, you have the responsibility to be optimistic. You have a degree that will create opportunities for you and the learning to help you seize them. Many people just as talented and smart as you did not get to where you are today often through no fault of their own. So never ask why someone else has been given more; ask why you have been given so much.
I first learned this lesson from hearing stories about my paternal grandfather. Grandfather Rice was a poor farmer's son in Ewtah, Alabama. One day, he decided to get book-learning. And so he asked, in the language of the day, where a colored man could go to school. They said that a little Presbyterian school, Stillman College, was only about 50 miles away.
So he saved up his cotton to pay for the first year's tuition. After the first year, he ran out of cotton and he needed a way to pay. My grandfather asked the school administrators how those other boys were staying in school, and he was told that they had what was called a scholarship. And, they said, "If you want to be a Presbyterian minister, you could have a scholarship too." My grandfather said, "That's just what I had in mind."
What my grandfather found, and what I experienced years later, is that it matters not whether you enter college or graduate school poor or rich, minority or majority, urban or rural, foreign or American. You emerge as a graduate and a different person. Some of you may come from a long line of attorneys. Yet there is also the first female member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw [CHOK-taw] Indians to be admitted to the state bar. Another member of your class was born in a slum in Jamaica. Today, you all leave with the same degree and the same opportunities. You embody the truth that education is a great equalizer and that here in America it is not about where you are coming from, but where you are going.
Your third obligation as educated people is to affirm that values matter and that the law can be, and should be, an instrument for protecting the universal values of freedom that unite people across all cultures.
Here, you have a leg up on many of your colleagues graduating from other schools because your education has been grounded in faith. Faith provides comfort and hope in times of difficulty and can open the door to understanding of what is important in life.
Throughout my life I have never doubted the existence of God, but, like most people, I have had some ups and downs in practicing my faith. After I moved to California in 1981 to join the faculty at Stanford, there were a lot of years when I was not attending church regularly. I was traveling a great deal, always in a different time zone, and church too often fell by the wayside.
Then one Sunday morning I was approached at the supermarket by a man buying some things for his church picnic. He asked me, "Do you play the piano by any chance?" I said, "Yes." And he said his congregation was looking for someone to play the piano at their church. It was a small African-American church in the center of Palo Alto and I started playing there every Sunday. And I thought to myself, "My goodness, God has a long reach all the way to the spice section of a supermarket on a Sunday morning."
The only problem was, it was a Baptist church and I don't play gospel very well. I play Brahms. At this church the minister would start with a song and the musicians had to pick it up. I had no idea what I was doing. So I called my mother, who had played for Baptist churches, to ask for advice. She said, "Honey, just play in C and they'll come back to you." And that's true. If you play in C, the foundational key in music, people will come back. Perhaps God plays in C, and that's why we always seem to find our way back to Him, sometimes in spite of ourselves.
I know there are many outstanding attorneys for whom faith plays little or no role in their lives. But I am confident that by combining your understanding of the law with your understanding of God's ways you will broaden your perspective and multiply your accomplishments and good works.
In Matthew, Jesus warned against the kind of lawyer who knows the law but not its ultimate purposes, saying "woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees [who] give a tenth of your spices mint, dill and cumin [b]ut neglect the more important matters of the law [which are] justice, mercy and faithfulness."
This message has particular resonance in Jackson, Mississippi a place that has been the site of so many key events in America's long-running struggle to define the meaning of justice. This is the city where the Tougaloo Nine and the Freedom Riders were arrested and where Medgar Evers was cut down by an assassin's bullet. It was a focal point of the Freedom Summer of 1964 and it was James Meredith's destination in his 1966 March Against Fear.
The civil rights struggle was America's chance to resolve the contradictions inherent in its birth. And at its roots, it was a legal struggle, pitting the natural law that underpins our Constitution and Declaration of Independence against unjust laws on the books that fell far short of that ideal. The Founding Fathers didn't mean me when they wrote the Bill of Rights. But by their terms, those rights were universal in theory, and you can trace the history of the civil rights era in the court filings of lawyers arguing that they should be universal in fact. The civil rights struggle was in a very real way America's second founding.
It also made real one of America's greatest gifts to the world: the promise of multi-ethnic democracy. We live in an age where too often difference is still seen as a license to kill. That's what terrorism is grounded in whether it be terrorism in the Middle East or here in America. Growing up in Birmingham, I lived with the home-grown terrorism of that era. And I remember the bombing 40 years ago of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that took the lives of four young girls, including my friend, Denise McNair. Acts of terror are calculated to propel old fears into the next generation.
America's diversity is a powerful rejoinder to that state of mind. Can the world forge a common future based not on ethnicity but on a commitment to an ideal, a commitment to democracy A future where people get ahead based on ability not on circumstances of birth.
In America, we say, "yes we can."
Our democracy is still a work in progress, not a finished product. The hard work begins anew each day. Yes, we practice what we preach but 225 years after the fact we are still practicing; practicing each day to get it right. And by doing so we strengthen America's moral authority and the currency of these values across the world.
We must always remember that while America cherishes the ideals of equality, justice, and the rule of law, we do not own them. As President Bush has said, the values of freedom are not America's gift to the world but God's gift to humanity. People everywhere share the most basic yearnings for liberty to create, speak, and worship in freedom.
When these values are under attack, we must not ? and we will not spare any effort in their defense. When freedom is being sought by brave people living under tyranny, we must stand on their side. And when newly free people are seeking to build the institutions of law and democracy, we have an obligation if asked to help.
And we are. This summer in Afghanistan a working draft of a new democratic constitution will be presented at town hall meetings across the country. In Iraq, leaders from every province and ethnic group have declared their commitment to a democratic future for their country. And last week, President Bush announced an important initiative for working in partnership with the people of the Middle East to bring more economic opportunity, better education, and more freedom to the region. The United States will help countries seeking to reform their judiciaries, provide training for the growing number of women seeking elective office, establish media law projects, and support new parliamentarians and civil society organizations.
This enterprise will be long, not short. Often, progress will come in small, quiet steps, less dramatic than the toppling of statues. Occasional setbacks are inevitable. But these efforts are vitally important and they are an essential element of the war on global terror. President Bush is fully committed to their success both as an American, and as a person of faith. As he said last week, "[W]e are determined to help build a Middle East that grows in hope instead of resentment."
My own hope is that some of you have the opportunity to contribute to these efforts directly or that you find other ways to serve. Because I believe that every American has an obligation to help make the world a better place. As an educated person and as an attorney you will have obligations that are weightier than most. Remember that you were admitted to this school less on the basis of your past achievements than on your potential to continually improve yourself and to contribute to the world once you leave. I urge you to give some of your time, or even part of your career, to give back to a world that has given you so much.
Finally, keep close to your hearts the advice of one of Mississippi's most famous sons, William Faulkner, who said, "Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don't bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself."
God bless this Class of 2003 today and every day through the rest of your lives.
# # #