"You are today's Whitney Young": Vernon Jordan Delivers Stirring 2013 Commencement Address

Vernon Jordan

We present the full text of the commencement address that Vernon Jordan delivered at the Columbia School of Social Work graduation, May 22, 2013, for which he received a standing ovation.

On a beautiful Friday morning in June, fifty three years ago, I sat where you sit today—anxious, excited and weary, waiting to be awarded my hard-earned graduate degree. The speaker at my commencement was perhaps one of the most prominent lawyers of the day. He rose and proceeded to deliver ... the longest, most boring, most uninspiring address ever inflicted upon a graduating class. It was full of sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing.

So today, you have my deepest sympathy and empathy as you await my discourse. Because believing as I do in equal opportunity—I plan to do to you the same thing my commencement speaker did to me.

I am here at the request of your marvelous dean, Dean Takamura, who has continued and enhanced the proud tradition of the school of social work. And I have my marching orders from my wife, Ann, a former social worker who trained and taught at the University of Chicago.

In short, it is a pleasure to be here—and not just because I have always wanted to stand onstage at the Beacon Theatre.

* * *

This distinguished institution—the Columbia University School of Social Work—holds a special place in my heart and in my history.

It was this school, back when it was still known as the New York School of Philanthropy, that incubated an organization of social workers and civil rights advocates called the National Urban League.

The idea for an organization to improve the social and economic condition of urban blacks was developed by George Edmund Haynes, a pioneering social worker and the first black student to earn a Ph.D. from Columbia. He came up with the idea in a class taught by the School of Philanthropy's dean at the time, Edward Devine.

So in 1910, the Urban League was founded, with Haynes at the helm and two Columbia professors on the board. And six decades later, leadership of the League was passed to me.

This is just one of the many ways this proud institution from which you graduate today has informed and influenced the social welfare of this country. The history of the Columbia school of social work is truly, as is so often said, the history of the social work movement itself.

So I am glad to be at George Edmund Haynes' school, which—through your friendships and fieldwork and pioneering capstone projects—you have made your school. And as I considered what to say to you, I found myself thinking about the example and legacy of an old, dear friend.

A man whose bronze bust adorns your library. A leader who operated quietly in the backrooms but whose actions echo loudly through the present day. A visionary who was, at heart and by training, a social worker like all of you.

I'm speaking of my predecessor as head of the national Urban League, Whitney M. Young.

Whitney doesn't always receive the recognition that is his due, the praise we accord other giants of the civil rights movement. But make no mistake—he was a giant.

As I say in the new PBS documentary about him—the panel at which I met Dean Takamura—Whitney understood power and he understood politics and most of all, he understood people. Recall that Martin Luther King was in the streets and Roy Wilkins and Thurgood Marshall were in the courts and Whitney was in the boardroom. One could not have been successful without the other.

Born to two educators in Shelby County, Kentucky, Whitney Young grew up knowing the value of a good education and a stable home. He graduated from Kentucky state at the age of 18 with a degree in social work. He joined the army, spent World War II on a road construction crew, successfully mediating between the black workers and their white southern officers. It was then that Whitney decided to make a career out of race relations.

He earned his masters in social work and got involved in the Urban League. Before long, he was elected its executive director. For my money, it was the best thing that's ever happened to the Urban League movement.

Because it was Whitney who, in just four short years, grew the Urban League from 300 employees to 1,200; and increased its annual budget twenty-fold, from $325,000 to $6.1 million.

It was Whitney, who, when I first moved to New York as head of the United Negro College Fund, took me around town and showed me how to fundraise, because he understood that our causes were connected, and that there was no need to be petty or competitive.

It was Whitney who, at a time when segregation had the force of law in half the country and the strength of custom in the other half, could work within both worlds negotiating new funding to expand rehabilitation programs, veterans centers, and employment opportunities.

It was Whitney who turned down a cabinet post because he believed he could do more to help the downtrodden and dispossessed as head of the Urban League. Who combined the passion of the civil rights movement with the professionalism of the social worker and forged the Urban League into an engine of the civil rights movement.

As he once declared, "I am not anxious to be the loudest voice or the most popular. But I would like to think that at a crucial moment, I was an effective voice of the voiceless, an effective hope of the hopeless." And he was.

And so are you.

Literally and figuratively, you are today's young: today's Whitney Young.

I don't have to tell those of you who are dedicating your lives to social welfare that pockets of poverty persist across this great land. That many thousands—millions—of anguished Americans suffer from addiction and disease. That there are far too many homes wherein children hunger for a crust of bread or a morsel of meat.

Indeed, the great gulf between the haves and have-nots is wider today than it was when Whitney Young ran the Urban League. More people live in poverty at this moment than in Whitney's day. And half a century after Brown v. Board struck down separate but equal, our schools are more segregated than they were in the 1950's.

Injustice, in our country, in this day, may be less visible than it was when I was growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, in the first public housing project for black people in America. Injustice is not men and women and children turned upon with dogs and fire hoses.

But the pernicious dynamics of history do not disappear that neatly.

It happens when young people and minorities are denied the ballot, from Texas to South Carolina to Wisconsin.

It happens when access to health care is wildly unequal—when how wealthy you are is one of the greatest predictors of how long you will live.

It happens in the banks where foreclosure notices are processed without due process ... driving families out of their homes as quickly as unscrupulous lenders drove them into their homes.

To me, becoming a lawyer was the best thing I could do to advance the cause of justice and equality.

But today, the battles that have been won in law, often still have to be won in lives. And that's where you come in.

An impoverished couple may have rights under the fair housing act, but it is a social worker who connects people with legal counsel if they are unfairly evicted.

A young immigrant may have the right to an education, but it is a social worker who will get that child into a classroom, and support if they need it.

A drug addict or mentally ill individual may have the right to treatment and care, but it is a social worker who will ensure that they seek and receive that treatment.

You are the bridge between people and policy, between noble intentions and desired outcomes.

And in a country where we give a head start to those who demand shorter security lines at the airport while taking away head start from vulnerable young people, we need you. We need you to make broken families whole, to advocate for the disadvantaged, to study the impact of our policies and propose alternatives to ones that are falling short.

In many ways, the civil rights movement lives on—has been institutionalized—in the work that you will do. It lives in your fierce belief in the dignity and potential of each and every human being.

A few weeks ago, the cover of Time magazine labeled you the “me me me generation”. They called you vain and vacuous and disengaged. But when I look out at this room, I don't see the “me me me generation”. I see a “thee thee thee generation”. I see a generation that will fulfill the vision of a truly great society, as President Lyndon Johnson described it to a different graduating class, exactly 49 years ago this day, when he said:

In your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the great society.

That is the future I see in you.

* * *

I leave you now with the experience that is etched forever in my heart and that has made me what I am. And that is the experience of my grandfather.

My grandfather Jim Griggs was a sharecropper on Mr. Robert Callier's place in Talbot County, Georgia, where I visited every August of my childhood. In the summer of 1947, I got up the nerve to ask him something that concerned me. We were sitting on the front porch of his roadside shanty, rocking to the same rhythm in our rocking chairs, and I said, "Pa, I want to ask you a question.”

He said, "what is it, boy?"

And I said, "Pa, at 70 years old, way down here in Talbott County on Mr. Robert Callier's place, what is it, Pa, that you most want out of life?"

And Pa raised himself up from that old raggedy rocking chair, and he had snuff in the front of his mouth and tobacco in the back of his mouth at the same time. He got up and spit that tobacco and snuff all the way to the highway in a straight line. And he leaned back and said, "Junior, at 70 years old, way down here in Talbolt County on Mr. Robert Callier's place, all I want out of life is to be able to go to the bathroom indoors in a warm place one time before I die."

That was my grandfather's highest aspiration. That was his impossible dream—to be able to go the bathroom indoors in a warm place one time before he died.

He didn't say that he wanted to learn to read and write and do arithmetic so the white man could not cheat him when he dealt with him.

He didn't say that he wanted to register to vote or sit on a jury or eat at the lunch counter or go to the library, because his life was so blinded by segregation, discrimination, and dehumanization that his highest aspiration was a basic creature comfort.

I am forever reminded, edified, sanctified, yea, even tormented by my grandfather's experience.

The shutters of my grandfather's life were so closed that he could foresee no future for his 12-year-old grandson or himself. Thanks be to God, the shutters of my life—and many others'—are sufficiently open that we can aspire to higher ground.

And yet, as long as there are those for whom life's barest blessings remain out of reach, your work—your calling—goes on.

As Whitney once observed, "I think that social work is uniquely equipped to play a major role in this social and human renaissance of our society, which will, if successful, lead to its survival, and if it is unsuccessful, lead to its justifiable death."

It falls to you to carry on the mission of Whitney Young, and spark this social and human renaissance. To leave Columbia University and go to the district of Columbia, or Columbia, South Carolina, or Columbus, Ohio. To comfort the oppressed. To care for the widow and the orphan, the addicted and the disabled.

And wherever the cry goes out, asking—pleading—"Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?" you will be there to answer, calling upon all the knowledge and understanding developed at this great school. And you will turn that question mark into an exclamation point by responding, "Yes, there is balm in Gilead. There is a social worker there."

That is your charge to keep, your calling to fulfill, your rendezvous with destiny.

And to that end, may you neither stumble nor falter—rather may you mount up with wings as eagles, may you run and not be weary, may you walk together, children, and not be faint.

Congratulations!