A number of high-profile African American leaders, influencers, and entertainers delivered commencement speeches at universities around the country this graduation season. Here are seven of the most compelling addresses.
John Lewis at Harvard University
On May 24, the Hon. Congressman John Lewis delivered an impassioned commencement speech at Harvard, urging the graduates to stand up for what’s right and save the nation. “You’re never too young or too old to lead, to speak up, to speak out, and get in good trouble. Necessary trouble,” said the civil rights trailblazer. “We need your leadership now more than ever before. We must save our country.”
Lewis, the son of Alabama sharecroppers, was a leader in the civil rights movement and an organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. During his speech, he touched on the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and encouraged the audience to continue fighting for justice.
Earlier this year, Lewis opened up to Black Enterprise about his hope in the younger generation, which has picked up the mantle in the fight for social justice. “These young people have been reading their literature, the history, and watching the film footage of what happened years ago. They don’t want to go through that, and they’re determined that they will stand up, speak up, and speak out and try to make our country and society better for the generation yet unborn.”
Chadwick Boseman at Howard University
Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman returned to his alma mater on May 12 to deliver the main address at Howard’s 150th Commencement Ceremony. The actor, who was granted the Doctor of Humane Letters, the HBCU’s highest honorary degree, encouraged graduates to find their purpose and persevere in the midst of adversity. “I don’t know what your future is, but if you’re willing to take the harder way, the more complicated one, the one with more failures at first than successes . . . then you will not regret it.”
He added, “Purpose is the essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill.”
Boseman, a graduate of the class of 2000, closed the speech by putting a different twist on a popular slogan from Black Panther. “Press on with purpose,” he said. “God bless you, I love you, Howard. Howard forever.”
Chance the Rapper at Dillard University
Rising hip-hop star and humanitarian Chance the Rapper called on graduates at Dillard in New Orleans to surpass the achievements of their own idols, using Beyoncé and Michael Jackson as examples.
“Living up to your heroes is amazing, but it’s not good enough,” he told the HBCU grads.
“The highest form of respect that we can pay to the people who came before us—the people who sacrificed for us and gave us everything—is to be better than them,” he added.
“Many of you will strive to be artists, doctors, lawyers, politicians, scientists. And as you do that, there will be moments of fear, moments where you walk right up to the edge of what your heroes have accomplished and think to yourself, ‘What’s beyond this? I don’t know. I’m scared to go on.’ And that is the moment when you have become as great as your greatest inspiration. And that’s also when you cannot stop.”
Oprah Winfrey at USC
Oprah Winfrey blasted fake news while delivering the commencement address at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism on May 11.
“Everything around us, including and in particular the Internet and social media, is now being used to erode trust in our institutions, enter fear in our elections and wreak havoc on our infrastructure,” said the media mogul. “It enables misinformation to run rampant, attention spans to run short and false stories from phony sites to run circles around major news outlets.”
Winfrey, who earned over $400 million by investing in Weight Watchers, went on to encourage the grads to use their power to create change by upholding ethical journalistic standards. “You will become the new editorial gate-keepers, an ambitious army of truth-seekers who will arm yourselves with the intelligence, with the insights and the facts necessary to strike down deceit,” she said. “You can answer false narratives with real information and you can set the record straight.”
Jemele Hill at the University Of Maryland
Award-winning journalist Jemele Hill gave the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism commencement address on May 21 where she talked about the changing landscape of media. Despite the challenges faced by journalists today, she expressed hope and optimism in the grads.
Back in 2017, Hill was suspended for two weeks from ESPN for encouraging fans upset with Jerry Jones to boycott the advertisers who support him and the Dallas Cowboys after Jones threatened to bench NFL players who protest on the field.
April Ryan at Bennett College and Simon’s Rock
White House Correspondent and CNN Political Analyst April Ryan encouraged the 2018 graduates at Bennett College (an HBCU for women located in Greensboro, North Carolina) to give back to the institution and embrace their beauty as black women.
“Graduates, you’ve got to think about from whence you’ve come,” Ryan said on May 5. “And you’ve got to remember to give back to Bennett College. It’s not about how much you give. While you’re standing, make a pledge to Bennett in your heart today. Graduates, I also want you to remember you’re beautiful black women, but most of all, you’re beautiful.
Ryan also delivered the Bard College at Simon’s Rock commencement address on May 19. Known for relentlessly probing White House officials, the distinguished journalist pushed the graduates to never stop asking questions.
“There’s nothing wrong with asking questions. Questions can change policy,” she said. “Questions can change a dynamic. It can bring an issue to people even for your parents. It can bring something to the forefront that was never thought of before. There’s nothing wrong with asking a question. But also as you ask the question, what is going to be the end result? That’s something you got to think about.”