News

CLA Valedictory

M. Lee PeltonEach year on this happy and remarkable occasion, I have sought to speak to the graduating classes on a subject that may hold some special meaning for them beyond their years at Willamette. I am fortunate this year, for history has provided me with my text - a topic so important that not to speak to it would represent a dereliction of duty, especially for someone whose life's work is education.

Tomorrow, the nation will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas - a U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared segregated public schools unlawful.

On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren, read from the bench the now famous words that constitutionally annihilated the separate but equal doctrine that had been the law of the land since Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896: [I]n the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

We are a better and a stronger nation because of Brown.

Brown represented the convergence of two compelling movements: one legal, the other social. It began the long process of legally unraveling a nation of separate parks, hospitals, public transportation, water fountains, public restrooms, libraries, hotels, restaurants, theaters, and cemeteries -- not only in the South, but in the North as well.

It laid the legal foundation on which other forms of modern-day discrimination have been or are in the process of being eliminated.

The Court's words are as true today as they were fifty years ago:

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. It is required in the performance of our most basic public society. It is the foundation of good citizenship. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms."

These words sustain and give force to the moral imperative expressed by the court last summer in two cases involving the University of Michigan that educational institutions - private and public, secondary and post-secondary alike -- have an obligation to ensure that "the path to leadership [is] open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity." (Grutter v. Bollinger).

At the time of Brown, I was a 4-year-old African-American kid from a working class family living in Wichita, Kansas - a long stone's throw from Topeka. I would enter kindergarten the fall following the court's ruling. My father and mother attended segregated public schools. After Brown, I had a choice that neither of them had growing up: rather than attend the segregated African-American school several miles to the south, I could attend the white school a short three blocks to the north.

Now, at a distance, this choice seems easier - more transparent - than the choices that similarly situated parents have to make today.

So it is, fifty years later, that our world seems topsy-turvy when one considers the growing numbers of ethnic minorities and families of color who resist court-ordered integration plans that bus their children several miles away in favor of revitalized neighborhood schools. It seems difficult to contest the reasonableness of such modern-day decisions, even though they compete with the integrationist vision of Brown.

And, in the year 2050 when there will be no majority "race" in America, one wonders whether if it will be still possible or even desirable to sustain the once compelling social vision that gave birth to Brown.

Yes, it was a very different world in 1954. The US explodes a hydrogen bomb in the mid-Pacific that is 600 times more powerful than the hydrogen bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The US Senate rejects President's Eisenhower's plan to extend voting rights to eighteen year olds. The President says that he can think of no greater tragedy than for the US to get involved in Indochina. The US Senate votes 67 to 20 to condemn Senator Joseph R. McCarthy for conduct unbecoming a Senator, bringing to a climax months of controversy over his unscrupulous tactics in the investigation of Communists in government. Two Lords are published this year: William Golding's Lord of the Flies and J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings. Roger Bannister, an Oxford medical student, breaks the four-minute mile and a New York Giants baseball player by the name of Willie Mays is voted MVP.

Marilyn Monroe sues for divorce from Joe DiMaggio. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye star in a movie called White Christmas. A $30 automatic coffee maker capable of brewing coffee in two minutes goes on sale for the first time. RCA begins mass production of color TV sets with 12" screen for under $1000. The Vatican reminds Catholics that watching mass on TV does not fulfill their religious requirements. Emmett Till is thirteen years old - an African-American boy living in Chicago. His brutal murder in Mississippi - a year and three months after Brown - would change the course of American history.
And, yes, all across the nation there is massive resistance by state governments and local school boards to the desegregation order.

Closer to home, Mark O. Hatfield, who was to become one of our nation's most venerated US Senators, was dean of students at Willamette, his alma mater. He oversaw a class of students who swooned and swayed to the hit music of Doris Day singing Secret Love, Sh-Boom, Sh-Boom by the Crew Cuts, Shake, Rattle and Roll by Bill Haley and the Comets and Young at Heart by the youthful Frank Sinatra. The class of 1954 won Glee all four years, only one of two classes in the history of Willamette to do so. Willamette initiated a 3:2 engineering program with Columbia University, one of the earliest cooperative academic arrangements of its kind in America. Fifty years ago today, ground was broken on a new health center (Bishop), a women's dormitory (Doney) and a campus fine arts center (G. Herbert Smith Auditorium). The Collegian featured several editorials about the McCarthy hearings, the majority of them in support of Senator McCarthy. ROTC had a strong presence on campus, and undergraduates hosted an "Ugly Man" Contest.

We have come a long way. The classes before me will graduate with distinction. Two of you have won the prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship that will permit one of you to study local barter networks in England, Thailand, Australia and South Africa and the other to travel to the Andes, China and Eastern Europe searching for a common thread in the music of mountain peoples. Willamette is the only university in the nation this year to receive two Watson and two Truman Fellowships. Others are headed to graduate school to study chemistry, physics, astronomy, law, medicine, theology, political science, history, film studies and economics, to name just a few. Some of you will be in Prague or Calcutta or Japan or Tanzania or London or Paris or Central America next year. Most of you will go directly to work.

Among these many talented students, I wish to acknowledge especially those who have chosen to teach in our public schools. To you we owe a special debt, for you have chosen a path whose financial rewards are few, but whose contributions to the future of this country are exceptional.

We need new leadership in education, and we need it now. Today too, too many young lives of bright hope and promise are darkened with the clouds of defeat. We need public school teachers prepared to teach effectively in increasingly multi-cultural and multi-racial communities. We need to provide incentives for our very best college students to seek teaching positions in areas where the poverty and achievement gaps are most prominent.

The very best education has the capacity to awaken young children to their individual destinies and nurture the promise that lies within each.

Great and powerful things happen when you put an eager student and a good teacher in a classroom. This is where knowledge begins. This is where great ideas are nurtured. This is where transformation and change begin. This is where our future begins.

As was once said, "the important thing is not so much that every child should be taught, as that every child should be given the wish to learn." (John Lubbock.)

We gather today in tribute to the history of an uncommon university, to acknowledge the splendid contributions of our honorary degree recipients and, most important, to mark in this public setting the extraordinary promise of these educated young women and men.

Four short years ago, the undergraduates assembled on these green fields to recognize its matriculation into this community of learned folk. At that time, I said that root meaning of matriculate was derived from the Latin "mater" or mother. Today, you set sail from your "alma mater" - your nourishing mother - on a new journey of growth and discovery.

I bring you good news. You have been nourished, indeed. Your education has prepared you well, and your time here has been well spent.

In all that you do, remain faithful to the education you have earned and to the legacy that you have inherited. Share your talents and resources with those who have not had the good fortune to participate in the bounty of life as you have.

And when you depart from these halls of learning, may your life bring you some work of noble note, may you find meaning in your commitment to others and may your memories of Willamette be undying.

Good luck and good cheer.

05-16-2004