Be 'disturbers of the unjust peace,' civil rights leader Vernon Jordan tells Stanford graduates
Baccalaureate speaker Vernon E. Jordan, Jr. told graduates that the world was calling out for them to realize their talents – not just for their own gain – but also to lift up those in whose shoes, but for the grace of God, they might have been walking.
Addressing the Class of 2015, Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., a civil rights leader, attorney and investment banker, urged Stanford graduates to join the great struggle to achieve genuine equality in America, using their skills, knowledge and drive to become "disturbers of the unjust peace."
Speaking on Saturday in the Main Quad at Baccalaureate, a multi-faith celebration for graduating students and their families, Jordan said he had come to Stanford to ask, as the prophet Isaiah once did, "Who will go, and whom shall we send?"
"And I pray that your answer is, 'Here am I. Send me,'" Jordan said. "'Send me to help clear the rubble of racism still strewn across this country. Send me to be one of the bulldozers on behalf of equality and in the cleanup crews against injustice. Send me to 'disrupt' injustice. Send me to 'hack' bias and bigotry. Send me to 'lean in.'"
"I urge you to embrace this responsibility – this obligation – to be disturbers of the unjust peace," he continued. "And do it, as it has always been done, through the slow, steady, tedious process of changing hearts and minds – one person, one organization, one institution – at a time."
Jordan, who is a senior managing director of an investment banking firm, and senior counsel at a Washington, D.C., law firm, was a leading figure in the civil rights movement, and a former director of the United Negro College Fund, who fought to abolish discrimination in college admission policies.
After graduating from college, Jordan spent the summer driving city buses in Chicago while trying to decide whether to go to law school or to the seminary.
"And though I never ventured onto this quad under a full moon … I, too, discovered sin … and I liked it," he told the audience, a quip that elicited laughter and applause.
Best legal fee of his career
Jordan began his address with a story from 1960. He had just graduated from Howard University Law School, had a wife and child, and was earning $35 a week working as a law clerk for a prominent civil rights attorney in Atlanta.
Jordan joined a team of lawyers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – the NAACP – and travelled to rural Georgia to represent an 18-year-old black man who had been arrested, arraigned, indicted, tried, convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair, all within 48 hours.
The proceedings were held in the segregated courthouse of Tattnall County.
"We three NAACP lawyers slept in the nearest colored motel 30 miles away," he said. "Each day we appeared in court to plead our client's case. Each day at lunch, the white lawyers and court officials would go across the town square to the white-only café. And we black lawyers would go to the local grocery store, order sliced bologna, a loaf of bread, a jar of mustard, a Coca-Cola and a Baby Ruth, which we would eat in our car parked on the courthouse square."
On the third day of the trial, a black woman seated upstairs in the "colored" section of the courthouse invited them to lunch at her home. When the lawyers arrived, they found "a table set for royalty," with her best china, silver and crystal, a lace tablecloth, beautifully folded white cloth napkins and "the most exquisite Southern cuisine I've ever eaten," Jordan said.
"Some 10 black women and their husbands joined hands with us as our hostess' husband said grace," he continued. "I shall never forget one sentence in that prayer: 'Lord, way down here in Tattnall County we can't join the NAACP, but thanks to your bountiful blessing, we can feed the NAACP lawyers.'"
In the intervening years, Jordan said, he has been privileged to advise presidents and CEOs, and to negotiate national and international transactions. And for most of that, he said, he was more than adequately compensated.
"But nothing, nothing compares to the compensation I received from those humble, kind, generous black people in Tattnall County, Georgia, in the summer of 1960 – the best legal fee of my career."
Jordan said a Stanford graduate is a "very hot commodity" on the job market, and even the "fuzzies" can expect to be snapped up by a start-up.
"However, if the only rewards you see are financial, the full majesty of your Stanford degree will elude you," he said.
"So whether you start a company, or practice law, or become a doctor, or make incredible art, it is my genuine hope that each one of you will come to understand that we live in a world that calls out for you to realize your talents – not just for your own gain, but lift up those in whose shoes, but for the grace of God, you might have been walking," he said.
A 21st century problem
Jordan said the "color line" that W.E.B. Dubois (1868-1963) identified as the problem of the 20th century remains the problem of the 21st century, though it is less visible. While the "color line" faded when Barack Obama took office, Jordan said, it sharpened with a surge in the number of new voter identification laws.
"The color line fades when we see black and female CEOs managing America's top companies," he said. "At the same time, the color line sharpens when we see the toll that poverty and hunger and joblessness and hopelessness are having on too many Americans."
He said the color line persists "when black and Latino workers make up just 3 to 4 percent of Silicon Valley's technology workforce, but comprise 41 percent of Silicon Valley's security guards, 72 percent of its janitorial staff and 76 percent of its groundskeepers."
Jordan said the solution to the "color lines" of today – at its core – is not new.
"The solution is the tough task of getting people registered and out to vote and informed on the issues," he said. "It is the slow, but necessary process of changing corporate cultures, so that a brother can be a 'brogrammer' and a 'brogrammer' can be a 'sister-grammer.' It is the daunting project of shaping institutions that live up to our ideals and ensuring that the winds of freedom truly continue to blow."
The Baccalaureate celebration opened with a solemn Buddhist call to prayer performed on a singing bowl, and ended with a dramatic drumming blessing, Tatsumaki (Whirlwind), performed by Stanford Taiko.
In between, there was an invocation, "A Prayer of the Ojibway Nation," a benediction, "Redeeming the World," a reading from Compassion and the Individual, written by the 14th Dalai Lama, and a reading from Isaiah 6:8.
Stanford Talisman A Cappella, a student a cappella group, performed "Wanting Memories," a song of the African diaspora, and "Modimo Trilogy," a combination of three hymns that ended with a South African interpretation of Psalm 23.
'Run! I have faith in you.'
Senior Shelby Monét Sinclair, who offered the student reflection, talked about her grandmother, who left Mississippi as a teenager with her 14 brothers and sisters to escape the horrors of the Jim Crow South.
"She ran in the dark of night with eight dollars in the pocket of her hand-sewn cotton dress," said Sinclair, a senior majoring in comparative studies in race and ethnicity, with a minor in history. "My grandmother had no job and no college education, but an abundance of faith."
Sinclair said her grandmother, whom everyone called "Mother," always told her to "walk by faith, not by sight," a quote from 2 Corinthians. They attended early church services, where they sat through hundreds of sermons, singing and holding hands. By the time Sinclair graduated from high school, Mother was 84 years old.
"'Go on out to California,' she told me. 'Run! I have faith in you.'"
Mother died the month Sinclair left for Stanford. Though uneasy about the future, Sinclair flew to California, telling herself to "walk by faith and not by sight," and that if her grandmother could dare to be something bigger than the condition in which she was born, then so could she.
"At Stanford we've been given the freedom, the flexibility, and the encouragement to take leaps of faith and see where it would lead us," Sinclair said.
"If you told me that day on the plane that I'd spend three months in Chile, climbing the Andes Mountains or that I would dance for 24 consecutive hours to raise money for health clinics in Africa or that I'd take a class taught by Angela Davis, I would've laughed in your face."
Sinclair said many fellow students had "run" to Stanford, just as her grandmother had fled the stifling heat of the Mississippi summer.
"We came here with no guarantees, but holding on to the belief that this four years would be everything we'd dreamed," she said. "Even more importantly, '15, we are running toward something else, something better, something new that we can't quite predict. Embrace that something, 2015! Run! I have faith in you."