Beginning her legal career as the first African American woman to pass the bar exam in Mississippi, Marian Wright Edelman has been an inspirational leader and advocate for children, families, and disadvantaged people throughout her professional life. She was awarded the Honorary Doctorate of Humanities during Commencement exercises on May 25, 2015, in Tappan Square.
The following is a transcript of the Commencement address by Marian Wright Edelman.
It is a great honor to share this day of accomplishment, celebration, and transition at this great college with your trustees, President, faculty, families, and most importantly with what I am sure is the best graduating class in Oberlin’s history. Oberlin’s great abolitionist history makes me wonder how much closer America’s dream would be towards becoming America’s reality today if your admissions policies for African American citizens and women had been adopted by other colleges and universities in their beginning years.
We are living in a time of unbearable dissonance between good politics and good policy; between racial creed and racial deed; between calls for community and rampant individualism and greed; and between our capacity to prevent and alleviate poverty, human deprivation and disease and our political and spiritual will to do so.
We also are blessed to be living at an incredible moral moment and inflection point in our nation’s and world’s history— blessed to experience the beginning of both a new century and millennium. How will we say thanks for the life, earth, nations, and children God has entrusted to our care? What legacies, principles, values, and deeds will we stand for and send to the future through our children to their children and to a spiritually confused, balkanized, and violent world desperately hungering for moral leadership, peace, justice and community?
How will progress be measured in our time and over the next hundred or thousand years if humankind survives them? By the kill power and number of weapons of destruction we can produce and traffic at home and abroad, or by our willingness to shrink, indeed destroy, the prison of violence constructed in the name of peace and security? Will we be remembered by how many material things we can manufacture, advertise, sell, and consume, or by our rediscovery of more lasting, non-material measures of success—a new Dow Jones for the purpose and quality of life in our families, neighborhoods, cities, nations, and world communities? Will we be remembered by how rapidly technology and corporate mergermania and greed can render human beings and human work obsolete, or by our search for a better balance between corporate profits and corporate caring for children, families, and the environment? Will we be remembered by how much a few at the top can get at the expense of the many at the bottom and in the middle, or by our struggle for a concept of enough for all? Will we be remembered by the glitz, style, and banality of too much of our culture in our electronic global village or by the substance of our efforts to rekindle an ethic of caring and sharing in a world driven far too much by money, technology, weaponry and quests for power and fame?
How can it be just in the United States that the richest one percent of Americans own more of the nation’s wealth than the bottom 90 percent; that the highest-paid American CEO took home in 2013 more than the combined annual salaries of 6,600 child care workers; and that those who educate and care for our children who constitute 100 percent of our future are so devalued in our society? Why are teachers nearly 270 times less valuable than a corporate CEO of one of the top 350 firms whose average compensation was $15.2 million in 2013 compared to an elementary school teacher’s average yearly salary of $56,320? A high school teacher, however intelligent, skilled and hardworking, earned less in a year ($58,170) than the nearly $164,000 one basketball player earned in one day! And all of our kindergarten teachers in America combined earn less in one year than 25 hedge fund managers.
Lee Iacocca, a former Chairman and CEO of Chrysler Corporation said: “In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something less.” Our values need adjusting and reversing.
Both Houses of Congress didn’t think we were doing enough for our wealthiest Americans and powerful corporations, so the Republican majority voted in April to repeal the estate tax of 5,400 people – the top 2/10th of 1 percent—at a taxpayer cost of $269 billion without a way to pay for it while leaving in place looming budget cuts of $36.5 billion from child and family safety net programs that provide nutrition, housing, child care assistance to help parents work, and Head Start desperately needed by millions of our 14.7 poor million children. And Congressional budget cutters of child safety net programs were so worried that our military whose budget is nearly three times larger than the next highest spender (China) needed more money to defend us from external enemies that they gave another $38 billion in war funding the Pentagon did not ask for through an off budget “war fund” requiring no budget offset.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German Protestant theologian who died opposing Hitler’s holocaust, said the test of the morality of a society is how it treats its children. We flunk Bonhoeffer’s test every hour of every day by permitting a public school student to drop out of school every 9 seconds and to be corporally punished every 30 seconds; a child to be born into poverty every 35 seconds; to be abused or neglected every 47 seconds; to be born without health insurance every minute; and to be killed or injured by guns every half hour. We have lost more than 174,400 children and youths to gunfire in America since 1963—more than all U.S. military killed in action since World War II. More children under 5 died in 2013 from guns than law enforcement officers in the line of duty. U.S. children and teens are 18 times more likely to die from gun violence than their peers in 25 other high-income countries combined!
After a transforming Civil Rights Movement sparked by ordinary Black people with extraordinary courage who wanted their children to have a better education and life, and after sacrificial deaths for the right to vote and fully participate in our democratic processes, and 47 years after Dr. King’s call for a Poor People’s Campaign in 1968 to end poverty in our rich nation and his death while supporting Black Memphis garbage workers seeking to be recognized as men and to be paid decent wages for their indispensable dirty work, we may be teetering again on the brink of a possible second post-Reconstruction era spawned in part by changing demographics, huge wealth and income disparities, money saturated politics, proliferating voter suppression measures, still separate but very unequal schools, massive illiteracy and innumeracy among our Black and Latino school children, and a Cradle to Prison Pipeline™ which traps 1 in 3 Black and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001. Mass incarceration has become the new American apartheid undergirded by a criminal justice system that criminalizes Black boys and men for their color and criminalizes the poor for their poverty in a society that has excluded and failed to prepare so many of them to succeed in our economy. And it is morally obscene that the United States of America let’s 14.7 million children grow up poor, 6.5 million of them in extreme poverty. And the younger children are the poorer they are during their years of greatest brain development: 51.3 percent of Black babies are born into poverty 50 years after Selma.
I think it’s time for a third reconstruction era to move us forward and realize Dr. King’s dream. It’s time to wake up and not sleep through another revolution that threatens to take us backwards and to spark a new transforming movement to ensure every child in America a fair and healthy start in life.
During his last year calling for a Poor People’s Campaign, Dr. King repeatedly told the parable of the rich man Dives who ignored the poor and sick man Lazarus and reminded us that Dives went to hell not because he was rich but because he did not realize his wealth was his opportunity to bridge the gulf separating him from his brother and allowed Lazarus to become invisible. He warned this could happen to rich America “if we don't use her vast resources to end poverty and make it possible for all of God's children to have the basic necessities of life." On his last day of life he called his mother to give her his next Sunday’s sermon title: It was “Why America May Go to Hell.”
I first heard Dr. King in Spelman College’s chapel during my senior year when he told us students in the throes of the sit-in movement to keep moving forward. He said: “If you can’t fly, drive. If you can’t drive, run; if you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk, crawl. But keep moving forward.” He also told us not to be afraid to take the first step in faith even when you could not see the whole stairway and to leave the stairway to God. I have tried to follow his advice throughout my life.
Let us wake up, speak up, stand up and never give up fighting to make America’s dream America’s reality. I want to pass on to our children and grandchildren a better and more just country than we inherited. I want America to realize God’s dream for all humankind—Dr. King’s dream—so wonderfully expressed by South African Archbishop and Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu.
And God says, I have a dream. I have a dream that all of my children will discover that they belong in one family—my family, the human family—a family in which there are no outsiders; all are held in the embrace of the one whose love will never let us go, the one who says that each one of us is of incredible worth, that each one of us is precious to God because each of us has their name written on the palms of God’s hands. And God says, there are no outsiders—black, white, red, yellow, short, tall, young, old, rich, poor, gay, lesbian, straight—everyone. All belong. And God says, I have only you to help me realize my dream. Help me.
We can realize God and Dr. King and Bishop Tutu’s dream if we refuse to give up. I wear every day a necklace with the pictures of two great illiterate but brilliant slave women, Sojourner Truth and Harriett Tubman, who were determined to be free and didn’t wait for anybody else to free them. When I’m having a bad day and want to give up, I think about them and get up again. One of my favorite Sojourner stories occurred when she was speaking out against slavery and second class treatment of women and she got heckled by a White man who told her he didn’t care anymore about her antislavery talk than for a fleabite. She responded, “that’s alright, the Lord willing, I’m gonna keep you scratching!”
So often we want to be a big dog and make a big difference but all of us can be a flea and bite and bite and move the biggest dog. Enough determined fleas biting strategically can make the biggest dog uncomfortable. And if some of us are flicked off but keep coming back and continue biting, we can change our nation. So be a flea for justice—for children and for the poor.
Let us not sleep through another revolution seeking to turn America backwards. Let us stand up and together create a country and world worthy of the children God has entrusted to our care. Let’s move forward!