Rev. Dr. William Joseph Barber II remarks:
To our creator who has allowed all of us to be here today; to our leader, Mr. Hanno; to all the trustees, professors, faculty; to the staff, to the secretaries, to the cooks, the janitors, the safety officers; to families, friends and, most of all, the Class of 2019; I am humbled to be honored by Wheaton College today with this honorary Doctor of Laws degree, and I am humbled to be considered with the other awardees who are so deserving. I’m thankful, by the grace of God, to be here with you today.
Nearly 40 years ago, I sat where you sit now in my alma mater. I want to take a moment just to recognize a home girl who is sitting here today, and that is Emma Crosby Freeman, who’s from North Carolina.
Wheaton was founded in 1834 as a female seminary, chartered as a four-year liberal arts college in 1912, became co-ed in 1988, and its Phi Beta Kappa chapter was established in 1932. Throughout Wheaton College’s history, you have had a reputation for academic excellence, and it is a direct result of pioneering leadership.
As I look out on all of you today and think about my own 40 years that have gone by, I am reminded of a poem by Dr. Benjamin Mays, who was the mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King at Morehouse University, when he said:
‘I have only just a minute,
Only 60 seconds in it.
Forced upon me, can’t refuse it.
Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it.
But it’s up to me to use it.
I must suffer if I lose it.
Give account if I abuse it.
Just a tiny little minute,
But eternity is in it.’
Because of this, Class of 2019, I have come today to issue both a caution and a call. And it is that you must graduate today, but get up, get together and get involved tomorrow.
There are some that want to promote the lie that all is OK. But as Chancellor Jonathan Bennett, or Chance the Rapper, says, “Sometimes the truth don’t rhyme. Sometimes the lies get millions of views.”
And, in this moment, you have to question the Trumpalistic slogans we hear about bull markets and booming economies. Yes, that’s the message from the White House and from Wall Street. We do live in a time when some people who put their names in gold plating on new buildings like to talk big talk. They collude with lies and obstruct the truth and say everything is fine when it is not.
Many others engage in inattention violence and refuse to even look at the realities around us. And others see the problems, but just throw up their hands and say ‘nothing can be done.’
The truth is life is hard for most folks in America, and something must be done. For many of you here, you are only the first or the second generation in your family to even go to college. And no matter how you look on the outside, it was hard to get here, hard to stay here, and it’s hard out here, and in many places, it’s getting harder.
And that’s why John Legend, my friend—as we talked not too long ago—said in his latest song, ‘Preach’:
“I can’t sit and hope, I can’t just sit and pray,
that I can find a love, when all I see is pain.
I try to do the things, I say that I believe.
I can’t just preach, baby, can’t just preach, can’t just preach.
Falling to my knees, I can’t just preach.”
I must do something.
I have been traveling all over this land for the past two years organizing people for the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. And I want to invite each one of you to join it, to Google it, to be a part of it.
I am just back from Chunchula … the poorest city in the poorest county in the nation, where human beings are literally living in the midst of raw sewage. I have been in the backwoods of Appalachia with white communities, where people are suffering because of corporate neglect and because tops of mountains are cut off in order to get a little bit of coal, and then the tops of the mountain turn to mud and destroy their homes.
I have seen homeless encampments and tenant buildings. I have been on native lands and on the backroads of the country. That’s the harsh reality of poverty in the richest nation in the history of the world, which is why I know you must graduate today, but then get up, get together and get involved tomorrow.
Systemic racism is alive and well. When a president today claims the success of an economy that he was handed from a black president who brought us out of a recession and from 7.8 percent unemployment, that’s racism.
When, since 2010, long before we heard anything about Russia, 22 states passed racist voter suppression laws from North Carolina to South Carolina, from Ohio to Mississippi. You must understand this and you must graduate today, get up and get together and get involved tomorrow.
When we look at the reality that the Voting Rights Act that was passed in 1965 has been gutted and since June 25, 2013, we have had less voting rights in this country than we have had 50-something years ago. And when you add that to racial lines gerrymandering, which long before any talk about Russia allowed people to steal and cheat and lie their way into office, we must understand: you graduate today, but you must get up and get together and get involved tomorrow.
When a president loses the election by 4 million votes but is selected president by an Electoral College that is a relic of racism and slavery, and 100 million people chose not even to vote in 2016, you must graduate today, but then get up, get together and get involved tomorrow.
When mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow, when too often shooting unarmed black people goes unpunished, when indigenous people on reservations face cruel decisions to frack and drill on their sacred land, we need you to graduate today and then get up, and get together and get involved tomorrow.
When a country of immigrants is weaponizing deportation to rip families apart and reject people, brown immigrants at our southern borders have had families snatched, and mothers and children put in cages. When just last week I visited sister Rosa Gonzalez, who in Maryland was separated from her family, she’s in sanctuary now because of the president’s policies that want to deport her, leaving her three children, one with Down Syndrome, despite the fact that she came here to get away from violence that was created in El Salvador by United States paramilitary policies. People were trying to kill her with machetes. And when you have people in office now trying to put immigration policies in place, and if they were in place when their great-grandmas tried to come here, they wouldn’t be able to get into this country, you must graduate, get up, get together and get involved tomorrow.
And when some people still feel that they have a right to hate and then discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation and who they choose to love, you must graduate today, get up, get together and get involved tomorrow.
When some say our economy is good and the unemployment is down to 3 percent, but they don’t tell you that most of those jobs are low-wage jobs and part-time jobs. When there are right now, as you sit here today, 140 million people in this country that are poor and low wealth, 43.5 percent of this nation. When there are 400 families that make an average of $97,000 an hour while we lock people up who go in the street for $15 and a union. When plus-60 million people work for less than a living wage, less than $15 and a union, and 250,000 people die every year from poverty, yes, I want you to graduate today, but I want you to get up, get together and get involved tomorrow.
When 37 million people go without health care, and people pray not to get sick because they can’t afford treatment, and when politicians try to block people from getting health care when those same politicians, when they get elected to Congress, get free health care paid for by our money. When two weeks ago the current administration had a prayer day, and on that same day, members of that administration were preying—p-r-e-y-i-n-g—and trying to roll back the policies that protect people with pre-existing conditions and protect pregnant women, you must graduate today, but you must get up, get together and get involved tomorrow.
When we see the hypocrisy of an Alabama state governor who has refused to expand health care, who is against health insurance companies having to cover pre-existing conditions and pregnant women, who is against living wages, even though thousands of people die every year from poverty, who is for sinful voter suppression laws and now says she’s signing a law because she cares about life and morality and signed a so-called ‘heartbeat’ bill to take away a woman’s right to choose, when the reality is, shamefully, she is claiming to care about a heartbeat inside the womb, but doesn’t care about heartbeats outside the womb.
When families, Mr. President, in Flint, Michigan, to … Louisiana, and all over this country, people can get up every morning and buy unleaded gas but can’t buy unleaded war. When a war economy drains social programs and impoverished communities here at home to destroy and pollute poor countries around the world. When a combat soldier makes less than $35,000 a year and a weapons company CEO makes $19 million a year as an average, and people are making a killing off a killing. When we are putting that 62 cents of every discretionary dollar into the war economy, but only 15 cents of every discretionary dollar into education and health care and infrastructure at home, you must graduate today, get up, get together and get involved.
Unless you think this is somewhere else other than Massachusetts: In Massachusetts, 43 percent of the people are poor. That’s 2.9 million residents, 700,000 children, 1.6 million women, 1 million people of color and 1.8 million white people. In this state, 3,000 black adults cannot vote because of felony voting restrictions. There are 9,403 in prison, almost 56 percent of them are people of color; 379,000 people in Massachusetts are uninsured; 11 percent of the census track in Massachusetts are at risk of being unable to afford water. Eighteen thousand people are homeless.
And in this state, you have to work 100 hours a week at a minimum wage job to just possibly afford a two-bedroom apartment. And there are 1 million workers in this state making less than a living wage and more than 700,000 in this state on food stamps.
What a distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism, and Christian nationalism tries to be the chaplain of the state and not the critic of the state and does not follow the call of God, that does not ask you, are you against homosexual or gay people? Are you against abortions? Are you for prayer in the school? Are you for guns? Are you for tax cuts?
Those are not the questions of God Almighty. The questions of God Almighty to nations is simply this: When I was hungry, did you feed me? When I was naked, did you clothe me? When I was sick, did you care for me? When I was an undocumented immigrant, did you welcome me in?
When we have a false narrative that says God blesses those who are cursing the poor and defending racism and wage and senseless wars and hating Muslims and gay people and destroying the Earth and loving tax cuts and guns, this is such a lie that you must graduate today, but then get up, get together and get involved tomorrow.
We need you. America needs you. The world needs you on the front lines for love and justice and truth. Class of 2019, you are graduating during a moral crisis in America. And I must tell you the truth, but I must also say you are not the first. Truth is, it has always been young people who have stepped forward at moments of crisis in this nation’s history to offer the leadership that can push us toward a more perfect union.
When this school was founded, it was founded so that young women, in a revolutionary way, could be trained theologically, despite the chauvinism that was present in the church and in the nation.
Langston Hughes was a young man. He knew he could not wait. He could not just work a job and ignore the world around him. So, he decided in the 1920s and ’30s, to do what we call ‘rapping’ today; he called ‘writing poetry.’ He decided he would lead the prophetic poetic transformation, which would be known as the Harlem Renaissance. And when he was young, it was Langston Hughes who then raised the question that Dr. King would later pick up.
‘Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve flung.
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that is almost dead today
Oh, let America be America again—
The land that has never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every person is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man, the Indian’s, the Negro’s, me
Who made America
Whose sweat and blood, whose face and pain,
Whose hands at the foundry, whose plow in the rain.
We must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain
From those who live like leeches on the people ‘s lives.
We must take back our land again.
I say it plain.
America never was America to me
And yet I swear this oath—
America shall be’
Young people, Diane Nash, a student at Fisk University, became a leader in the student non-violent coordinated committee. She was at the center. as a young woman. of shaping the Selma to Montgomery walk.
Bob Zellner, the son of a Klansman from Alabama, changed his whole history trajectory and became the first white young man to be in the southern student non-violent coordinated committee. And, since I’m a preacher, that brown-skinned Palestinian Jew I follow—his name is Jesus—in the flesh was a young man. And even as a teenager, he was challenging wrong. And his first sermon as a young man in his hometown was bringing the spirit of the Lord and preaching the news to the poor.
These young people, and thousands like them in history, didn’t have credentials for the roles they took. Instead, they answered a call with big hearts and grand ideals and learned minds.
So, I stopped by today to issue a call during this moment of moral crisis in America. We need you to graduate today, get up, and get together and get involved tomorrow. This country needs you. I don’t know how many of you know that Hebrew Bible scripture that talks about the story of some Hebrew young people that graduated from the University Babylon. And when they graduated, there was a narcissistic lying whore on the throne who demanded that they bow down and believe all of his fake news. He threatened them with being caged. He threatened them with police brutality if they didn’t bow. But instead, they united together and said, ‘Oh, King, we know that our God can deliver. But even if God doesn’t, we will not bow. Oh, King, the God we know can deliver, but even if God doesn’t, we will not.’
Graduates, you must choose likewise to graduate, get up, get together and get involved and not bow to greed, not bow to division, not bow to inequality, not bow to the injustices around you. You cannot merely get a job, a car, and then quarantine your life. You must graduate from college, get up, get together, and get involved in the movement. Your graduation must signal more than just a graduation for private purposes. America needs you to answer the call, to stand up and stand against those things contrary to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and to be against anything that is trying to destroy anybody’s fundamental human rights.
I believe that you must decide how you can be a part of reviving the heart of this democracy. You must go from Commencement to commencing. Never in history has so much money been spent to resist equality. The gross sums of money being spent to take us backwards is lewd, is pornographic, is blatant, and is arrogant.
These are troubling times. Corporations are being treated like people. People are being treated like things. Banks get bailouts from loans with our money for no interest and turn around and lend you money on your student loans with interest.
These are critical times, and yet never in history has there been a generation with so much at your disposal to make a difference. Our parents, your parents, your grandparents, and fore parents, in the struggle for justice and love, they did more with less, and we must do more with more.
With less, they beat slavery. With less they beat Jim Crow. With less they beat lynching. With less they beat the KKK. With less they stood against fascism. With less they overcame apartheid. I once told a group that with less and with no formal education, and despite having epilepsy, Harriet Tubman got 500 slaves out of slavery. She didn’t have email. She didn’t have Facebook. She didn’t have texting. She didn’t even know what Twitter was. She didn’t have a car. But she had faith in God. Moss on the north side of the tree and a north star in the middle of the night, and she had a constitution, a deep constitution in her soul and would not merely accept wrong.
She and so many others before us did more with less, and we must do more with more. We must get up, get together and get involved. I know the power of getting together. The truth is, when people of conscience have gotten together, when the stones that the builders have rejected have gotten together, those stones become the cornerstones of a new society and freedom.
And I look out today: Some of you have known rejection. You have known rejection because of the color of your skin. You have known rejection because of who you choose to love. You have known rejection because of your income. You have known rejection because of the families you were raised in. You have known rejection because of a disability or setback. But I stopped by to tell you that when the stones that the builders have rejected get together, they can become the chief cornerstone of a new society.
When people of consciousness have come together and stood together, justice has never lost. I didn’t say justice hasn’t been fought and I didn’t say it hasn’t been beat up. But justice has never lost. During slavery, it looked like justice had lost. But when those like Frederick Douglass and some white Quakers and white evangelicals of that day got together, they formed a fusion movement that brought about abolition. Women didn’t have the right to vote. But when a former slave named Sojourner Truth and white Quakers like Lucretia Mott got together, and many others, they won the right the vote.
Plessy vs. Ferguson said separate but equal was the constitution; it looked like it was a victory. But when a law school named Howard, that had been rejected, trained Thurgood Marshall, and he mobilized white lawyers and black lawyers and Jewish lawyers, when they got together, an all-white supreme court with one member who had a member of the KKK had to vote unanimously to tear down separate but equal. It looked like Jim Crow had beaten down justice. And right wouldn’t rise again.
But when Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King … got together with white folk like Viola Russo and James Reed and others, they tore Jim Crow down. God changed America by raising up people who dared to get up, get together, and get involved. And there is a power when we get up from where we are, get together and get involved.
In 1993, I qualified for rejection. Sickness hit my body. I stayed in the hospital for weeks. I went through depression. Doctors said I might never walk again. Some people told me I would never be able to pastor again. I spent 12 years in a walker, on a walker, wheelchair, pain all the time. Only time I had some relief was when I was standing up speaking. I guess that’s why I’m longwinded today.
Over that time, something happened. My mind got together. My doctors got together. My pharmacist got together. My therapist got together. My swim coach got together. My family got together. My church got together. And the prayer warriors got together. And I can stand now because all of those folks got together. So, together, we can get up, and get involved, and we must. Together, love can take on hate. Together, mercy can take on meanness. Together, justice can take on injustice. Together, truth can defeat lies. Together, we can come together and protest. We can come together and vote together. We can push back wrong together. We can lift up rights together. Together, we can get up and get involved and we can change America.
And when we all get together in this nation, what a day of rejoicing. What a day of justice it will be. When we all get together and stand for everybody’s right and everybody’s well-being.
So, as I look out on you, I am led to pray. I was consecrated a bishop in the church a few years ago and I feel like praying today, a Franciscan benediction: May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers and half-truths and superficial relationships so that you may seek truth boldly and love deeply within your heart. May God bless the Class of 2019 with a holy anger, an anger at injustice and oppression and exploitation of people so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.
May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed for those who suffer from pain and rejection and starvation or the loss of all they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.
And may God bless you, Class of 2019, with enough foolishness to believe that you really can make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim can’t be done. And may the grace and the peace of God be with you and remain with you from this day forever more. And I will see you on the front line, where we are fighting for freedom, justice, and all that is right. God bless you.
• More 2019 Commencement coverage here.