2013 Convocation Speech: Undaunted by the Fight!
Given by President Beverly Daniel Tatum
August 29, 2013
Print Version (pdf)
Good morning – and welcome to all of you! I want to thank our new SGA President, Shanteal Lake, for her kind introduction, and Dr. Butler and Reverend Rhodes for their opening remarks and invocation, and our esteemed organist, Dr. Joyce Johnson for the prelude. At Spelman the majestic sound of the organ always connotes something important is taking place and the postlude at the end gives us a moment to contemplate what has just transpired. We sometimes take these opening and closing moments for granted, but students, I hope you will all learn to use the prelude and the postlude as a time of quiet – first, the quiet of anticipation, and then, the quiet of reflection – part of the rituals that make Sisters Chapel a special place.
It is also part of our tradition to hear from the Glee Club at the opening of school. Let’s give another round of applause to the Spelman College Glee Club – featuring some new voices from the Class of 2017! It is so wonderful to see that the pipeline of vocal talent is still flowing to Spelman!
Spelman is a community with rituals of celebration, and this opening convocation is one of those rituals. It is one of my favorites because it marks the start of a new school year, and I have loved the start of school since I was a child. A new school year represents so many new possibilities – new things to learn, new friends to make, new opportunities to unfold. Those opportunities are not just for students – but for faculty, staff, administrators, alumnae, trustees, friends of the College – this is a place where all of us can learn and grow together. That’s just one of the reasons why Spelman is such a special place.
This opening convocation is also a ritual of welcome. We welcome back all those who have returned after our summer break – our faculty and our students – the sophomores, the juniors, and the seniors in the Class of 2014 for whom this is their final opening convocation as they move every closer to graduation on Sunday, May 18, 2014. That date will be here before we know it! We wish you well as you run this last lap of the Spelman MILE!
We extend a special welcome to our newest students – some who started their college experience elsewhere but have now found their way to Spelman – would any of our transfer students please stand? Welcome! Some of our newest students will be here for just a short time – maybe a semester or a year – on exchange from one of our partner institutions. Would any exchange students among us please stand? Thank you for joining us here this year, we welcome you. Some of our students come to us having had years of work experience or having started their families, perhaps served in the military – they bring a set of life experiences to the classroom that our younger students have not yet had perhaps. We call these our Pauline E. Drake Scholars.
If there are any Pauline Drake Scholars with us this morning, please stand. Welcome again to Spelman College! As Spelman “goes global,” the number of international students among us increases, and I am delighted that we have almost doubled the number of international students with us this year, some who will be here just for the year, others joining us for their entire college experience. We welcome you all! Please stand and be recognized.
We have at Spelman this year students from the Bahamas, Bermuda, Brazil, Burundi, Cote D’Ivoire, the Czech Republic, the Gambia, Guyana, Japan, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Trinidad, the United Kingdom, and Zimbabwe. It’s so exciting to see how truly global we are becoming!! And last year 279 Spelman students had the opportunity to travel abroad – during the year or in the summer. Do you know how significant that is?! In the US only 9% of all American undergraduates study abroad. At Spelman College we are pushing toward a goal of 100%! And we are well on our way. And of course, out in full force today – all 550 of them – is the new Class of 2017! First year students, please stand! We welcome you!! And, get your passports ready!
To the faculty and staff who were not here with us in Sisters Chapel on the evening of Sunday, August 18th for the Spelman sisterhood ritual of induction, I want to tell you how impressed I was with the Class of 2017. We saw such powerful displays of creativity and talent – I know we can expect great things from this new group of students! And that is as it should be. As we will sing together, “Spelman thy name we praise, standards and honor raise…,” I feel confident that the Class of 2017 will continue to raise those standards and bring honor to themselves and to Spelman!
This opening convocation is a ritual of celebration, of welcome, and of recognition – recognizing the achievements of a special group of faculty, those who are the recipients of presidential and other awards for excellence, and I look forward to the presentation of those awards later in our program. I am aware that there are special people in the audience – family members and friends of the College who have come to join in the celebration of these achievements, and I want to extend a warm welcome to all of our special visitors this morning. We are glad you could join us!
Some of you know that I am an active Twitter user. My user name is BDTSpelman. Because I travel so much on behalf of the College, I find that Twitter is a good way to stay in touch with the campus community while I am gone, especially with students, and it is a good way to keep connected with our alumnae community as well. So, it has become my practice to pause at this moment in our program so I might take a picture of all of you right now with my phone so I can post it later, and I am going to do that right now. (BDT takes photo of audience). Thanks for your patience.
Now, listen to these words:
Through years of toil and pain, May thy dear walls remain,
Beacons of heavenly light, Undaunted by the fight…
I am sure you recognize them as from the Spelman Hymn. “Undaunted by the Fight!” is the title of my talk today, and it was inspired by those lines, as they were used by Spelman professor emeritus Dr. Harry Lefever when he titled his book, Undaunted by the Fight: Spelman College and the Civil Rights Movement, 1957-1967.
This is what Professor Lefever had to say in the preface of his book about his use of those lines from the Spelman Hymn: “Eddye Money Shivery, a member of the Spelman graduating class of 1934, is the author of the Spelman Hymn. Although Shivery probably had a non-activist meaning in mind when she penned the lyrics, the last stanza of the hymn easily lends itself to an alternate interpretation, one the activist students and faculty of the 1950s and 1960s could have readily embraced. Certainly, those from Spelman – students, faculty, administrators, and alumnae – who identify themselves as keepers of the 1950s and 1960s activist flame can sing their school’s hymn with an activist meaning.”
As the nation has focused this past week, and especially on yesterday, the 50-year anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the “I have a dream” speech of Martin Luther King, Jr., a pivotal moment in the struggle for civil rights, it seems appropriate at this opening convocation to ask the question, “Are we the keepers of that flame?” How do we sing our song?
Before I ask you to answer that question, I of course want to remind all of you of the important role that Spelman women played in the Civil Rights movement right here in Atlanta, and that Professor Lefever wrote so thoroughly about. I spoke of the work of AUC student government presidents on August 18th at the joint Spelman-Morehouse convocation, and described the leadership role that Spelman SGA President Roslyn Pope played in authoring the “Appeal for Human Rights” in 1960, an argument for human rights that was so well crafted that the governor of Georgia questioned whether it could really have been written by students. We honored Roslyn Pope last spring right here in this Chapel with an honorary degree at Founders Day. I will read just the opening section of her words here:
An Appeal for Human Rights
We, the students of the six affiliated institutions forming the Atlanta University Center – Clark, Morehouse, Morris Brown, and Spelman Colleges, Atlanta University, and the Interdenominational Theological Center – have joined our hearts, minds, and bodies in the cause of gaining those rights which are inherently ours as members of the human race and as citizens of the United States.
We pledge our unqualified support to those students in this nation who have recently been engaged in the significant movement to secure certain long-awaited rights and privileges. This protest, like the bus boycott in Montgomery, has shocked many people throughout the world. Why? Because they had not quite realized the unanimity of spirit and purpose which motivates the thinking and action of the great majority of the Negro people. The students who instigate and participate in these sit-down protests are dissatisfied, not only with the existing conditions, but with the snail-like speed with which they are being understood. Every normal human being wants to walk the earth with dignity and abhors any and all proscriptions placed upon him because of race or color. In essence, this is the meaning of the sit-down protests that are sweeping this nation today.
We do not intend to wait placidly for those rights which are already legally and morally ours to be meted out to us one at a time. Today’s youth will not sit by submissively, while being denied all of the rights, privileges, and joys of life. We want to state clearly and unequivocally that we cannot tolerate, in a nation professing democracy and among people professing Christianity, the discriminatory conditions under which the Negro is living today in Atlanta, Georgia – supposedly one of the most progressive cities in the South.
The appeal, which appeared as a full page ad in the Atlanta newspaper, went on to cite statistics about inequities in school funding for segregated schools, challenged the segregation in federally funded hospitals, challenged the absence of black police and firefighters, and protested the fact that many of them were still being denied the right to vote. Its publication marked the beginning of several years of highly visible student activism – sit-ins, kneel-ins, marches, and other forms of non-violent protest. It is a common misconception that Martin Luther King, Jr. led this activity in Atlanta, but in fact the students initiated it.
Dr. King himself wrote, “A generation of young people has come out of decades of shadows to face naked state power; it has lost its fears, and experienced the majestic dignity of a direct struggle with their own history – the slave revolts, the incomplete revolution of the Civil War, the brotherhood of colonial colored men in Africa and Asia. They are an integral part of the history which is reshaping the world, replacing a dying order with a modern democracy.
That is the activist flame that is our inheritance. I was six years old in 1960. Most of you in this Chapel weren’t even born yet. But it is a history that has shaped all of our lives. It is history we all need to know.
But my goal today is not so much to look back as it is to look forward, and when I do, I see challenges on the horizon to which we all need to pay attention. Challenges like the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court this summer – making it easier for states from North Carolina to Ohio, and Georgia too, to implement Voter ID and other laws that make it more difficult for some segments of the population to vote; challenges like the “Stand your ground” laws in Florida and elsewhere that make it possible to kill someone like Trayvon Martin and go unpunished, challenges like the continued denigration of women in popular culture and disenfranchisement in public policy, challenges like the environmental degradation and climate change that is leading to superstorms and historic droughts across the nation, challenges like unvetted changes to Parent Plus Loan credit criteria that make it more difficult for students from economically challenged families to qualify for much needed school loans.
We live in a challenging time, but you all are here for such a time as this. It is a time when educated women like the women we produce at Spelman College are needed, now more than ever.
Progress of any kind is rarely linear. It is often a matter of two steps forward and one step back. Periods of progressive reform are often met by backlash – as others, perhaps fearful of what is unfamiliar, try to return to an earlier status quo. There are many examples in history of that pattern. If we are paying attention, we can see that pattern in motion right now. In fact, I sometimes feel like we are living in the 21st century version of Reconstruction! If you don’t know what I mean by that, I want you to talk about it in ADW. See if you agree with that assessment.
It is because of our current condition that is we especially need critical thinkers and problem solvers, essay writers and speech givers, planners and organizers – we need courageous Spelman women who are prepared to stand up and say, “we are not going back!” Roslyn Pope wrote in that appeal, “We do not intend to wait placidly for those rights which are already legally and morally ours to be meted out to us one at a time.” The question for this generation is, “do you intend to wait placidly for those rights which are already legally and morally yours to be taken away one at a time?”
Students, “Are you ready to be the keepers of that flame?”
Earlier this month I was in Bloemfontein South Africa at the University of the Free State. Bloemfontein has an interesting history – it is in the middle of South Africa (what someone described to me geographically as being like the Kansas of South Africa) and it is an area that was both the birthplace of the apartheid system and the birthplace of the African National Congress (the ANC) that led the resistance to apartheid. The system of segregation known in South Africa as apartheid was officially ended in 1994, not quite 20 years ago. In 1994 the University of the Free State was an all-white university and the language of instruction was Afrikaans, a language spoken by the descendants of the Dutch colonizers known as Afrikaners. Today the university population is 60% Black South Africans and the leader of the institution, Dr. Jonathan Jansen, is the first Black university head in South Africa. That is a lot of change in a relatively short time.
During the question and answer period of the program, a young man, a black South African, stood up and asked with frustration about why he was still being called racial slurs on the street and discriminated against in the work place when presumably society had changed and apartheid was over. I replied that even in the US where it has not been 20 years but 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation that ended slavery, and 50 years since the March on Washington, we still have work to do to interrupt old patterns of thinking and forge new ways of being with one another. Those things don’t change overnight. The struggle continues. We still have inequities to address.
And that is why education is so important. If you live and work in a college community, it is easy to forget that a college education is still a precious commodity in the United States. If you are or are becoming a college graduate, you are still a person in the minority. In 1960, only 4% of Black adults had a college degree. Today that number is 21%, still less than one in four. (Among the U.S. white population that number is 35%.)
A college education is a privilege, but if it is really going to make a difference it has to be a critical education – one that encourages you to ask questions, and analyze arguments, and communicate ideas logically and coherently, based in disciplined use of reliable data and information, not just assertion of opinions -- so you can make an impact. Spelmanites, we need you to be women of impact, women undaunted by the fight!
You know, of course, that we have GOALS for each of you –
G – Global Experience for every student
O – Opportunity for undergraduate research and/or career related internships
A – Alumnae- student connections through mentoring and engagement
L – Leadership Development
S – Service Learning, linking community service to your classroom experience
The faculty spent this year’s Fall Faculty Institute focused on undergraduate research and how it can be incorporated across each department. It was very exciting to hear their examples.
Inquiry-based learning, it is sometimes called. That means learning based on asking questions. Students, you did not come here to have your learning already chewed up and processed for you like baby food. At least I hope you didn’t. I hope you came to ask hard questions, and discover complex answers. Teaching and learning of that kind is not for the faint-hearted. It requires challenging assumptions, engaging in uncomfortable conversation at times, pushing through unfamiliar material, sometimes falling short and making mistakes, but then coming back to try again. But it is that kind of learning that prepares you to be “undaunted by the fight.”
I don’t know about you, but I feel a sense of urgency about that, about making sure that you, our students, are ready. Time is running out for us as a healthy democracy if we don’t start asking and answering some very hard questions. Spelman alumna Marian Wright Edelman C’1960, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, recently wrote this assessment of our situation:
At Dr. King’s death in 1968 when he was calling for a Poor People’s Campaign there were 25.4 million poor Americans, including 11 million poor children, and our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was $4.13 trillion. Today there are 46.2 million poor people, including 16.1 million poor children, almost half living in extreme poverty, and our GDP is three times larger, and shamefully the younger children are, the poorer they are. One in three Black and Latino children is poor. National wealth and income inequality are at near record levels while hunger, homelessness, illiteracy, fear, and hopelessness stalk millions of children and adults across our land who have been left behind in our economy. Isn’t it time to ask ourselves again with urgency whether America is missing once again the great opportunity and mandate God has given us to be a beacon of hope and justice for the least among us, beginning with our children, who are the poorest Americans?
That sounds urgent to me.
I listened to a lot of speakers over the weekend and yesterday talking about the unfinished agenda of Dr. King’s dream. One of the best speeches I heard on Saturday was that given by Newark Mayor Cory Booker, just 5 minutes long – you can find it on YouTube. Like most of you, he was not even alive when the March on Washington happened: But he made this point: He said, “My father told me, ‘You are enjoying freedoms, opportunity, technology, things that were given to you bought by the struggles and the sacrifices and the work of those who came before. Don’t you forget where you come from.’ ‘You drink deeply from wells of freedom and liberty and opportunity you did not dig,’”
That statement is true for all of us – We all drink deeply from wells of freedom and liberty and opportunity we did not dig” and so we must pay it forward with our commitment to excellence and positive social change -- opening doors of opportunity for people who look like us and for people who don’t, for people who speak like us and for people who don’t, for people who worship like us and for people who don’t, for people who love like us, and for people who don’t.
When I was in South Africa, I spoke to my audience in Bloemfontein about the fact that the university brings people of diverse backgrounds in close contact with one another – sharing classrooms, laboratories, residence halls, public spaces – providing a unique opportunity to engage with one another across lines of difference, to seek to understand each other’s life experiences and unique perspectives. For many people, the university represents the first opportunity to engage deeply with people whose life experiences are very different from our own.
Even though Spelman is a historically Black college for women, that statement is true here as well. There is much more diversity here than one might imagine just looking across the sea of faces in front of me today. Some of the people we get to know may be people we have been taught to mistrust – maybe because of social class, or skin color, or sexual orientation, or religion, to name just a few of the categories that sometimes separate us from each other. Engaging in a meaningful way with those we have been socialized to mistrust requires some courage. Why? Because we have to be brave enough to have our assumptions challenged. The reality is we ALL have misinformation about people different from ourselves.
We also have misinformation about people like ourselves. That misinformation has come to all of us from the way we heard our parents and teachers and friends talk about them and about us, and the way we saw those Others treated in comparison to how we ourselves were treated and talked about. No matter who you are or how old you are, you have been a part of this process. That misinformation is so common, so pervasive, it is like smog in the air, and none of us can avoid breathing it. And if you breathe in smog, you are sooner or later bound to breathe some out.
This is why we have to be courageous enough to be willing to make mistakes. Because if you want to engage with people different from yourself, you are bound to make mistakes – you might inadvertently use offensive language (because that is the language you grew up with), or act on erroneous assumptions (because they are so deeply ingrained). If we are honest, I imagine that we can all think of a time when we said or did something that revealed our smog-breathing past.
We can take comfort in knowing that everyone makes mistakes. But, knowing you will make mistakes does not mean that you don’t have to take responsibility for the mistakes you make. Ignorance is common but in a learning environment it cannot be tolerated as a permanent condition. I want to repeat that: Ignorance is common but in a learning environment it cannot be tolerated as a permanent condition, because we now have the opportunity to seek out new information and correct the misinformation we have internalized. When we do that it increases our ability to truly see, hear, and understand each other in our full humanity.
We all want that affirmation – to be seen, heard, and understood – for who we really are, not as the figment of someone’s imagination shaped by years of incomplete or distorted information.
If we don’t challenge ourselves and each other about what we have learned in the past, we are destined to pass it on in the future. Without intervention, we teach what we were taught, and the cycle of socialization – the cycle that perpetuates and reinforces the stereotypes and prejudicial attitudes that are so instrumental in the maintenance of oppression and inequality – that cycle goes uninterrupted.
The beloved community of Dr. King’s dream is within our reach if we open our hands to embrace it. And I hope each of you thinks about how you can make Spelman a welcoming place for all through the choices you make, and the interactions you have with each other every day – in person – or in the virtual world of social media. I know that as I stand here talking about the power of a Spelman education and the opportunity and responsibility that a Spelman education represents, there are some of you sitting here worried about how you are going to pay for your Spelman education, wondering where the next installment of your tuition is going to come from. Raise your hand if you know someone – it might not be you – but someone who is worried about that. I see a lot of hands raised! I ask that question because I know staying in school is another kind of fight – and I want you to be “undaunted” by that one as well.
If there was one thing that I wish I could change with a wave of a magic wand, it is that we had enough scholarship support for everyone who needs it. I spend a great deal of my time away from campus talking to alumnae and friends of the College about the need for more scholarships at Spelman, and because of those conversations, indeed, the amount of scholarships we have been able to give at Spelman has tripled from $5 million a year to more than $15 million a year, but still it is not enough and I know that. That number probably needs to double again to really meet the needs of our student community. But I want you to know this – whether you have a little scholarship, or a full scholarship, or no scholarship at all – you are still the recipient of an investment made possible by so many people who came before you – women and men who made contributions to the school, who invested in the faculty, who helped pay for the buildings, who give every year to the annual fund to keep this institution strong. And what those people ask of you is the same thing Cory Booker asks of you: Pay it forward!
Usually at the opening convocation I spend some time talking about coming attractions for the year – and indeed we have some exciting things that will happen that I want to mention. This year I am confident that we will achieve two major milestones – 1) we will reach, maybe even surpass, the $150 million goal of our fundraising campaign by June 30, 2014 and 2) this spring we expect to be ready to begin construction for the new Wellness Center at Read Hall – thanks to some very generous donors. Our focus on personal sustainability – wellness – is an integral part of your capacity to remain “undaunted by the fight.” Social change of the kind we need is a marathon, not a sprint, and we want you to have the endurance and stamina you need to stay the course for a lifetime – a long and healthy lifetime! And, continuing our institutional commitment to sustainability, the new and improved Read Hall will become our 3rd LEED-certified building on campus.
We will also hear this year from some fabulous speakers as part of the Ida B. Wells Barnett Distinguished Lecture Series – our own Spelman alumna, Dr. Evelynn Hammonds on September 16, Kimberle Crenshaw on January 27, and award winning author Dorothy Roberts on February 11 – all focused on the important and provocative theme of “'Black (W))holes and Geometry: The Politics of Black Women's Bodies". The title is taken from a 1994 article by Evelynn Hammonds and all the invited speakers are scholar-activists who have engaged the question of how Black women's and men's bodies are represented and constituted in law, literature, commerce, art, science or medicine.
In addition to the three speakers I have already mentioned, I want to add Deborah Willis – renowned photographer – who will also be here speaking on October 17 about her work on exhibit in our Museum this semester. The exhibit is titled Posing Beauty – another exploration of Black women’s bodies. Together these events create a wonderful interdisciplinary convergence of important ideas for you to engage with this year.
I want to thank Professor Mona Phillips, the Ida B. Wells Barnett Lecture Series planning committee, and our Museum Director Dr. Andrea Barnwell Brownlee for such a fabulous line-up! Don’t miss the opportunity to hear from any of these dynamic women – and congratulations to those of you who made the effort to be here this past Sunday to hear from Sonia Sanchez, another fabulous Spelman event made possible through the efforts of Professor Akiba Harper.
But rather than dwell on any of these coming attractions at length, I want to close my remarks today with the story of Dovey Johnson Roundtree because it is a story of hope and encouragement for all who might need it sitting here, and it is a story that reminds all of us why what we do at Spelman matters.
Who was Dovey Johnson Roundtree? She was a member of the Spelman College Class of 1938. In her autobiography, Justice Older than the Law, Dovey Johnson Roundtree recalls a moment that changed her life forever. Struggling to make her way through college during the years of the Great Depression, she hit a wall. She needed $300 to stay in school, an amount way beyond her grasp.
Without family members who could help her, or a bank to give her a loan, her dream of completing her Spelman education was slipping away. Just when she was about to give up hope, something wonderful happened. In a tremendous act of generosity, a donor stepped forward – in this case, one of her professors, a woman with resources, stepped forward to pay her tuition bill. All she asked in return was that Dovey “pay it forward” when she could. That act of kindness changed Dovey’s life, but it also changed ours.
Because of that gift, Dovey was able to graduate and went on to become one of the first Black women to serve in the Armed Forces, paving the way for others, and she later became a prominent civil rights attorney whose work laid the legal foundation for the successful challenge to school segregation in the Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, expanding opportunity for Black children all across the nation, including those who sit here today.
As Cory Booker said, we all “drink deeply from wells of freedom and liberty and opportunity we did not dig” and so we must pay it forward with our own commitment to excellence and positive social change.
Beacons of heavenly light, undaunted by the fight…
When the program ends today, we will close with the ritual singing of the Spelman Hymn. Let’s sing it as keepers of the flame, as beacons of light, still undaunted by the fight. Let us each be the beacons this world needs us to be, and use the educational tools we have and the knowledge we will gain for such a time as this. Dovey Johnson Roundtree would expect nothing less.
Let’s have a great year!