2020 Commencement Address for Berea College
May 18, 2020
In the opening sentences to his final sermon, “I See the Promised Land”, Martin Luther King Jr. imagined himself standing at the beginning of time, being asked by the Almighty which era he would most like to live in.
He remembers Egypt, the flight of freedom across the Red Sea, but he says he wouldn’t stop there.
He considers Athens, and wonders what it may have been like to discuss the great ideas with Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. But he chooses to move on.
He plays with being at the side of Abraham Lincoln in 1863, watching him sign the Emancipation Proclamation.
But ultimately, he says to the Almighty: “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.”
King recognized the irony of his own words. “That’s a strange statement to make,” he said, “because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding – there is something happening in our world.”
Berea College class of 2020, I have to wonder, as Martin Luther King Jr looks down at us from Heaven, if he may not be a little conflicted, a little jealous, if he might not be persuaded to trade some of his time in the second half of the twentieth century for a few days in the crisis we face now.
For this is surely a crisis that puts to the test everything that you have been taught at Berea College – about faith, about justice, about imagination, about empathy, about diversity, about cooperation. The wounds cannot be hidden, and yet the light shines through.
And what might this mean for you? Well, if you ever sat in a history class thinking that everything exciting had already happened, or read a novel for a literature course in which fiction felt more intense than reality ever could, or did an experiment in chemistry and thought that every imaginable discovery had already been discovered – the moment has come to you. An unexpected knock has arrived at your door.
What does it demand? I think the answer to that is actually not complicated. I think it demands decency and attention. This is a time to remember the wisdom contained in the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks and William Carlos Williams. That you share what you can with the people you love, and you grow that circle wider and wider and wider. You take note of the things on which so much depends, and know that there is majesty in simply enduring.
Class of 2020, I want you to know that people believed in you before you were born, loved you before you existed, knew that there would be moments like this and felt sure that you would be up to them. Some of us meet the moment by giving speeches on the national mall, others meet the moment by bringing groceries to neighbors. In the Bhagavad Gita, the warrior Arjuna does not know if he has the strength to engage in the battle before him. The Lord Krishna reminds him of who he is – that he was made for this. In the story of the Good Samaritan we are taught that eternal life is what awaits the one who is a good neighbor – who stops to attend to the wounded, who engages in acts of kindness across lines of difference.
This is what attracted you to Berea College in the first place. This is what Berea has nurtured in you. Remember the words of Martin Luther King Jr –
I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. This is what I want you to do. Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.”
Class of 2020, we need you, I believe in you.
American Civic Life