Pelosi Commencement Address at Fisk University
May 1, 2017
Nashville – Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi delivered the commencement address to the Class of 2017 graduates at Fisk University – a historically black university and the oldest institution of higher learning in Nashville, Tennessee. Below are the Leader’s remarks as delivered:
“Good morning everyone! Thank you, President Sims, for your introduction, a very generous one – and for your strong stewardship of this historic institution. Let us once again acknowledge President Sims and his family’s contribution to Fisk University.
“Congratulations also to President Kevin D. Rome – we know Fisk is in good hands, will be in good hands with your leadership, Mr. President-to-be.
“Chairperson Bowles, distinguished trustees, eminent faculty, honored alumni, joyous graduates, and your family, to all of you:
“Thank you for the immense honor of addressing you at the 143rd Commencement Exercise of this legendary institution.
“It is a great privilege to share in this day, and to be ever connected to this exceptional class through an honorary Fisk degree which you are presenting to me. Now you know you have a friend and a classmate in the Leader’s office.
“I want to acknowledge our fellow classmates, co-Valedictorians Lorado Mhonda and Oreoluwa Onalolu; to my fellow honorary degree recipient Michael Curb – Michael Curb was the Lieutenant Governor of California when I first became a full-fledged volunteer in politics, so it’s almost fateful, it’s almost a sign that we would today be here on this stage receiving honorary degrees with this very distinguished class. I’m very honored receive it with Michael Curb. It’s about friendship, it’s about Democrats and Republicans coming together to salute Fisk University. Let’s hear it for Michael Curb.
“To all the distinguished award recipients recognized today; congratulations and best wishes…
“Today, this sacred chamber brims with pride, with hope, and with celebration.
“As I begin, I want to join the President in recognizing the families and friends, the President, spouses and siblings, partners, grandparents and children of our graduates.
“Let us again thank them for the love and encouragement that has helped make this joyous day a reality.
“To the graduates: this is your day, your success, your achievement. I wish you could have all seen the sparkle in the eyes of your families and friends as you came in. You saw their response to your presence in cap and gown, just a remarkable thing.
“So it’s my honor to bring the congratulations of the United States Congress to the Fisk University Class of 2017!
“And I bring special greetings on behalf of the House Democratic Caucus – which I’m proud to say is more than 50 percent women, people of color & LGBT members of community.
“A caucus that is strengthened by the leadership of proud Fisk alumni: Congressman Alcee Hastings, Congresswoman Frederica Wilson – and the conscience of the Congress, Congressman John Lewis. They’re all champions of HBCUs, I might add and they’re all delighted that I am bringing their greetings to you.
“We are a caucus that believes that when women succeed, America succeeds! So glad to see so many women graduates.
“A caucus that believes, as we mark this month’s anniversary of Brown v. Board, that we must close the education gap if we are ever going to close the opportunity gap in our country – and that strong, well-funded HBCUs are essential to our country’s success.
“Graduates, you are the heirs – and you know this, but I want you to know the rest of us know this too – you are heirs to an extraordinary tradition of scholarship and service.
“Fisk diplomas are not simply recognition of a completed coursework, of completed coursework. They are a testimony to the character of the men and women who earn them, you.
“They are the final declaration of your proud place in a long and glorious legacy of courage and of purpose.
“A legacy that stretches back to the values that founded this university a century and a half ago – to match freedom and advancement;
“A legacy crystallized in the daring of the first Jubilee singers – and their determination to sustain this sanctuary, this sanctuary of learning for their fellow students, and for future generations;
“A legacy that fostered the leadership of Diane Nash, the advocacy of Ida B. Wells, and genius of W.E.B. DuBois – whose bust I am proud, when you visit me your classmate in the Capitol, you will see the bust of W.E.B. DuBois, I’ve had it in my office for over 15 years since I became leadership.
“A legacy that has advanced the cause of justice in the hands of every generation of graduates, some of them in this room, that have carried it into the world.
“You know all of that as I said, I just wanted you to know that so many others share the respect that you do for Fisk University.
“Graduates, this hallowed legacy is calling your class now, as it has called so many before you – to confront inequality; to challenge injustice; to demand a new dawn of righteousness.
“Consider the honored alumni classes who have come to stand in solidarity on your special day, gracing this ceremony with the strength and wisdom of their experience. They’ve already been acknowledged but I also want to pay respects to the Silver Class of 1992 and the Gold Class of 1967 and one of my constituents Noah Griffin is a member of that class, his father was also a Fisk University graduate.
“Both of these classes graduated in eras roiled by setbacks, but defined by the courage of men and women of a continued struggle.
“The class of 2017 is also graduating in a period of great change.
“The world you face today is much different from the world when you even first enrolled.
“The election showed just how much more work needs to be done to rid our nation of negative attitudes that have haunted us for generations.
“But we will prevail. We will prevail because America is a great country.
“We will prevail because America is a great country that can withstand even some of the present circumstances.
“We will prevail, we will prevail because God is always with us.
“God is with us to help us rid our country of some of those negative attitudes. But we have more work to do and you will be in the forefront.
“We will prevail because the election reawakened the activism of the American character; following years of young people – as usual, young people leading the way, including your class – mobilizing against prejudices, injustices that have been tolerated for, ignored for too long.
“And graduates, the Fisk legacy is as important now as it has ever been before.
“You graduate on a week resonant with history: the same week of the first Freedom Ride in 1961; the start of yet another chapter of Fisk students’ heroic leadership challenging injustice in our country.
“These courageous Fisk students drew from a doctrine embraced by Dr. King, and first articulated by Mahatma Ghandi: Satyagraha – this word Satyagraha that Dr. King embraced, in Sandskrit it means two things: it means non-violence and it always means, it also means ‘insistence on the truth.’
“Insistence on the truth is what the Fisk students did during their lunch counter sit-ins.
“They bravely, boldly insisted on the truth and it changed the course of history.
“So draw on the strength of the education you have received at Fisk – and insist on the truth of your right to every opportunity.
“Insist on the truth that we must make good on the full promise of our democracy.
“Insist on the truth that Black Lives Matter.
“Insisting on the truth is disruptive. It is difficult. But it has been absolutely necessary to the fight for justice and equality.
“Insist on the truth by voting. Mandate the truth by voting. Martin Luther King had a special relationship to Tennessee, he died here, as you know. But a multifaceted one. Dr. King said the ballot and your lives are directly connected. He said the ballot, the ballot, the ballot. Legislation, legislation, legislation. Your lives, your lives, your lives. The connection is one that cannot be ignored.
“So in order to honor the sacrifice of Dr. King and so many and so many of our graduates, and those who went before, and so many in our history who fought for the right to vote, we must all honor that sacrifice by, not only honoring that sacrifice to vote, but to ensure that what they fought for in equality, fighting injustice, and providing opportunity by voting.
“So you must insist upon; now we’re classmates, we’re having this degree together, you’re a friend. I know you take a pledge at the end to Fisk University and I read the beautiful pledge. Do you all take a pledge to vote?
“Let’s hear it, let’s hear it. Do you all pledge to take responsibility for the future by holding public officials accountable in the fight for equality and injustice? So let’s hear it again are you going to vote? Are your families going to vote? I think you do and I know that in doing so the truth will be well served.
“You will lead lives with many chapters. Wherever your next chapter takes you, you will have moral leadership and engagement to offer your community and our country.
“But I also hope you will recognize the possibility that your future may hold something unexpected and extraordinary. They asked me to tell you my story, very briefly I will tell you.
“When I was in college, I was bound for law school. Instead I got married, and proceeded to have five children in six years. Now I know after graduation, being Catholic and all. My husband and I spent the next years raising them.
“Even though I was raised in a political family – I was, when I was in first grade my father was elected Mayor of Baltimore, so I’m very close to Morgan State University there and when I was in college he was still Mayor of Baltimore. We were, public service was instilled in us as a noble calling, that we had to take responsibility for our neighbors, for our friends, for the community, for its well-being. But I never thought of running for office.
“So when the opportunity came to run for Congress, Mike you had already moved to, I think you’d already moved to Tennessee by then, it was 1987.
“And one of my five children, the others were off to college, she was going to be a senior in high school. So I went to her with all the sincerity and seriousness and purpose of moms and dads, I went to my daughter and said, ‘Mommy has the chance to run for Congress. I don’t know if I would win or not but I have this chance to run for Congress. I love my life, any answer is good. I’d love to stay here for this other year and forego that opportunity or I could run.’ It would entail my being away like three nights a week from the house but she and my husband are very close and so, she said back to me ‘mother,’ which I knew I was in trouble with the mother, ‘get a life.’
“I’d never heard that expression, this was thirty years ago. ‘Get a life?’ What teenage girl would not want her mother out of the house three nights a week?
“So I got a life – I went off to Congress and let me just say this to you. When the opportunity came, I was ready. I was ready. I was ready because I placed a value on who I was. And that’s what I want you to do, place a value on whatever you have done. Know your power.
“When I got to Congress 30 years ago, there were only 25 women in the House. Now we have a third of our caucus are women, but we wish there were more.
“So when I ran for a leadership position though the men said, ‘Who said she could run?’ That’s not something you say to women, right my ladies? ‘Who said she could run.’
“And then they said, ‘Well a lot of the women said she, they want her to run. And of course she has California,’ so I was.
“And they said, ‘Well why don’t the women just make a list of the things they’d like to see done differently and we’ll review them.’
“Poor babies. What could they have been thinking, they were going to say who said a woman could run and make a list and we’ll work for you maybe?
“Anyway, when I knew that I knew I had to run. I had to break the marble ceiling, glass ceiling chips in pieces, marble ceiling holding down women’s leadership in the Congress of the United States.
“I never thought I would go from the kitchen to Congress; from homemaker to House Speaker, the third highest position in our country. President, Vice President, Speaker.
“But when the opportunity to make a difference came – for women, for families, for our country, for men – I was ready to become the first woman Speaker of the House. Because I was ready I want you to be ready.
“Running for office is not for the faint of heart, right Mike? It’s not for the faint of heart. The most important things, they don’t come easy.
“Because progress is hard and uneven; but because you are capable of even more than you would believe…
“My prayer for you, graduates, is that when the moment comes in your lives, whatever it may be to present, you will be ready. You will know the power of you. You will know your power. I know you will be.
“And whether or not in the future I hope some of you will consider public service for yourself – or to help others.
“Whether or not you seek public office, all of you will need to be engaged in shaping the future of opportunity and justice.
“You all have a role to play in ensuring that, as America moves into the future, we match innovation with inclusion. Inclusion. We must have inclusion. And Fisk University is a very important institution in promoting that, in preparing for that.
“It is not just about jobs, that’s very important. It’s also about ownership. It’s about ownership.
“It’s about pressing for policies that open the doors to more, to better paying jobs but also for equity for those starting businesses.
“That means demanding equity and investments in the engines of education and advancement; that means staying involved in the life of your beloved Fisk; being mentors, allies and inspirations to the generations of students who will follow in your footsteps – as the newest, newest link in a mighty chain of alumni.
“Fisk University graduates of the Class of 2017: With your degrees, you have both the opportunity and the responsibility to lead. Again, know your power!
“At this hour of challenge, our country needs more of Fisk’s vision, values, and bravery. Your leadership is indispensable in the fight for justice and equality.
“As you embark on this next chapter, you are supported by the love of your families; the confidence of your education; and the sacred charge of this history.
“Now, it is your turn to answer the call written in the verses of your great Alma Mater: To North, to East, to South, to West, Thy loyal children make their way; To execute thy fine behest: ‘Go turn the darkness into day.’
“Congratulations to you and your families as you change the darkness into day and Fisk University. And may God bless you as you do that, and may God bless the United States of America.”