THE BLOG
06/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Why "Commencement"?

I admit it. I feel a special connection, an affinity even, with the Class of 2009. Why? Because my husband and I are both "Class of '68." This Class, like ours, will experience very directly the evolutionary reality: the only constant is change. Like us too, these young people will emerge from their cocoons and grow into adults in the daunting -- and heady -- context of a time of profound uncertainty. It will confront them at every conceivable turn. We cannot know the future, but we influence it.

In this frame of mind, we were glad again to accept our invitation to the graduation celebrations and ceremonies at Morehouse College.

The image of holy ground enhances its luster at Morehouse. In 1948, a very young Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the same ground to receive his degree. Yet this place is now more -- much more -- than historically significant. Morehouse's remarkable second-year President, Dr. Robert M. Franklin (Morehouse '75), is refocusing the entire institution on creating "Renaissance Men with a Social Conscience."

There was much to enjoy at Morehouse's 125th commencement. Glittering, well-earned celebrity added to the excitement. The legendary Hank Aaron received an honorary degree. Filmmaker Spike Lee sat among the many notable Trustees. Even the audience sparkled as the crowd cheered for Dr. Cornel West and an impressive array of political leaders.

The commencement speaker, the eminent Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was as funny as he was profound. The justly famous Ms. Cecily Tyson, presenting her "charge" to the Class of 2009, wisely deferred to Dr. Ernest Gaines' immortal words, crafted for his fictional Miss Jane Pittman. After all, it is Cecily Tyson we see and hear when "Miss Jane" appears on the screen for all to know. It is her gravelly voice shaping the question every mother/father/auntee/uncle/friend inwardly asks as each of life's stages commence:

"'Is you de one? Is you de one?'"

The momentousness of that deceptively simple question unequivocally was heightened by being at this singular institution. But isn't that the question all of us wonder as we send our young ones forth into all that lies ahead, in every commencement exercise, always and everywhere? And isn't that the question all of us should be asking ourselves?

Still, as is fitting, the truly electric moment came last. It was generated neither by fiction nor fact, came not from the academy nor the stadium nor Hollywood. The fire came from within.

With the radiant weight of an Old Testament prophet, Morehouse President Franklin rose before the assembled thousands. Into the silence, Dr. Franklin's urgently compelling baritone lifted us all, together.

He carried us in our minds' eye to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Chapel, to a time just days after Barack Obama was inaugurated President of these United States of America. On that day, Dr. Franklin assembled Morehouse students there. For hours, Dr. Franklin welcomed any who would speak.

Men of Morehouse, many on the brink of being "Morehouse Men," gave voice to what the inauguration of President Obama meant to them, personally, at that crossroad in the nation's political, cultural and moral history.

More than 20 times, Dr. Franklin said -- 20 times -- individual young men stood before each other. Twenty times, a bright young person had solemnly proclaimed two words. Two words, which Dr. Franklin boomed back to graduates and celebrants alike, two words to take forth -- directive, talisman and compass. Obligation and opportunity:

"Now it is up to you. The world is watching you, gentlemen. No excuses for intellectual underachievement; no excuses for unethical behavior. You have no excuses for not practicing the art of non-violence that Dr. King taught us. And we will accept no excuses."

This, President Franklin's parting gift to the Class of 2009 and to us all, is key to far more than mere worldly successes. It is the bedrock of responsibility, personal and civic. Just as surely, it is the foundation for re-imagining our place on this planet.

Let us commence. We have no excuses.