Robert F. Smith’s 2019 Morehouse College Commencement Speech Transcript
In a speech to the 2019 graduating class of Morehouse College, Robert F. Smith surprised the audience by committing to pay off the student loan debt of the entire class. His commitment to the 2019 class helps lessen the burden of student loan debts for students of color at HBCUs.
The following is the video transcript of Smith’s speech at the 2019 Morehouse College Commencement.
Introductory speaker: It is my pleasure to present to you, our commencement speaker for the morning, Dr. Robert F. Smith, officially a Morehouse man.
Robert F. Smith: Classmates, Class of 2019… you look beautiful… you look beautiful.
First of all, President Thomas, board of Trustees. Faculty, staff, and Morehouse alumni.
The extraordinary Angela Bassett, and the distinguished Professor Doctor Edmund Gordon.
Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, family, and friends.
And most of all, to my classmates, Morehouse College Class of 2019: Congratulations! Earning a college degree is one of the most impressive and greatest of life’s accomplishments.
But success has many parents — and as hard as each of you has worked to achieve what you all have achieved today, you’ve had a lot of help along the way. We are the products of a community, a village, a team. And many of those who have made contributions for you to arrive at this very moment are here with you today.
So, first and foremost, graduates of the class of 2019, please stand and join me in recognizing the love and commitment of those who have been with you on this long and hard journey!
Graduates, standing here before you is one of the great honors of my life. And I am so proud to share it with my mother, Dr. Sylvia Smith, a lifelong educator and the greatest role model of my life, who is here today.
This is the first of three graduations in my family this week. One of my daughters graduates from NYU, another graduates from high school and is headed off to Barnard in the fall, and my niece is graduating from my alma mater, Cornell, next weekend. So I want to thank the Morehouse administration for perfectly timing today’s festivities in advance of them so that I could be here.
Morehouse was built to demand excellence and spur the advancement and development of African American men. I have always been drawn to its rich history, and I am optimistic for its bright future.
The brothers from Morehouse I’ve met — or revered at a distance — understand the power of this education and the responsibility that comes with it. Willie Woods, Morehouse’s Chairman of the Board, is one such man. Thank you, Chairman Woods.
In our shared history — as a people, and as a country — the Morehouse campus is a special place. The path you walked along Brown Street this morning to reach this commencement site was paved by men of intellect, character, and determination.
These men understood that when Dr. King said that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, he wasn’t saying it bends on its own accord. It bends because we choose to put our shoulders into it together and push.
The degree you earn today is one of the most elite credentials that America has to offer. But I don’t want you to think of it as a document that hangs on a wall and reflects what you’ve accomplished up till now.
That degree is a contract – a social contract – that calls on you to devote your talents and energies to honoring those legends on whose shoulders you and I stand.
Lord knows you are graduating into a complex world. Think about what we have faced in just the years you spent as Morehouse students:
We have seen the rise of Black Lives Matter, lending voice to critical issues that have been ignored by too many for too long.
We’ve seen the Me Too movement, shining a spotlight on how far we still have to go to achieve real gender equality.
We’ve also seen the unapologetic public airing of hate doctrines by various groups.
We’ve seen the implications of climate change become impossible to ignore and become ever more severe.
Our connected world has grappled with new questions about security, privacy, and the role of intelligent machines in our work and lives.
And we’ve witnessed the very foundation of our political system shaken by the blurring of the sacred line between fact and fiction… right and wrong.
Yes, this is an uncertain hour for our democracy and our fragile world order. But uncertainty is nothing new for our community.
Like many of yours, my family has been in the United States for 8 or 9 generations. We have nourished this soil with our blood. Sown this land with our sweat. Protected this country with our bodies. And contributed to the physical, cultural, and intellectual fabric of this country with our minds and our talent. And yet, I am the first generation of my family to have secured all my rights as an American.
Think about it:
1865 was the first time that most African American families had a hint of access to the first and until now, greatest wealth-generating platform of America — land.
The Freedmen’s Bureau was supposed to deliver 850,000 acres of land to the formerly enslaved, a program that was then canceled and replaced with a Freedman’s Savings Bank…which was then looted.
Essentially that recompense was reneged upon. We didn’t have broad access to the Homestead Act nor Southern Homestead Act where 10% of the land in the U.S. was distributed for no more than a filing fee.
It wasn’t until 1868, after the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th amendment, that my family actually had a birthright to be American Citizens.
Then, when America decided to create a social safety net for its citizens in 1935, they created a Social Security program.
Yet that program excluded two categories of workers: maids and farmworkers, which effectively denied benefits to two-thirds of African Americans, and 80% of Southern African Americans.
It wasn’t until 1954 that my family had a right to equal education under protection of the law — guaranteed by Brown v. Board of Education.
And while the 15th Amendment gave my family the right to vote — the men, at least — starting in 1890, those rights were rolled back in the South and remained suppressed until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Even today, more than a half-century after that, the struggle to ensure true integrity at the ballot box is still very much alive.
All of these landmark extensions of our rights — and subsequent retrenchments — set the stage for a new policy of forced desegregation utilizing school bussing that went into effect when I reached the first grade in my hometown of Denver, Colorado.
Our family lived in North East Denver, and back then, Denver, like most other American cities, remained extremely divided by race, both politically and geographically.
In my community, my neighbors were mostly educated, proud, hard-working, and ambitious. They were dentists, teachers, politicians, lawyers, Pullman porters, contractors, small business owners and pharmacists.
They were focused on serving the African-American community and providing a safe and nurturing environment for the kids in our neighborhood.
They were on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement. They were sacrificing their sons to the Vietnam War. They mourned the death of a King, two Kennedys and an X.
Despite all they gave, they had yet to achieve the fullness of the American Dream. But they continued to believe it was only a matter of time – if not for them, then surely for their children.
I was among a small number of the kids from my neighborhood who were bussed across town to a high-performing, predominantly white elementary school in South East Denver. Every morning we were loaded up on bus number 13 — I’ll never forget it — and taken across town to Carson Elementary.
That policy of bussing only lasted through my fifth-grade year, when intense protests and political pressure brought an end to forced bussing. But those five years drastically changed the trajectory of my life.
The teachers at Carson were extraordinary. They embraced me and challenged me to think critically and start to move toward my full potential. I, in turn, came to realize at a young age that the white kids and the black kids, the Jewish kids and the one Asian kid were all pretty much the same.
And it wasn’t just the school itself — it was my community back home that embraced and supported our opportunity. Since most of the parents in my neighborhood worked, a whole bunch of us walked to Mrs. Brown’s house after school and stayed there until our parents returned home from work.
Mrs. Brown was incredible. She kept us safe, made sure we did our homework the right way, gave us nutritious after school snacks, and taught us about responsibility. And because her house was filled with children of all ages, I suddenly had older kids as role models who were studying hard and who believed in themselves. Mrs. Brown also happened to be married to the first black Lt. Governor of our state, so we saw the possibilities first hand.
Amazingly, almost every single student on that number 13 bus went on to become a professional. I am still in touch with many as they make up the bedrock of their communities today. They are elected officials, doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, professors, community organizers, and business leaders.
An incredible concentration of successful black men and women from the same working-class neighborhood. Yet when I look at my other folks from the extended neighborhood – those who didn’t get a spot-on bus number 13 — their success rate was far lower — and the connection is inescapable.
Everything about my life changed because of those few short years. But the window closed for others just as fast as it had opened for me.
That’s part of the story of the black experience in America: getting a fleeting glimpse of opportunity and success just before the window is slammed shut.
The cycle of resistance to oppression, followed by favorable legislation, followed by the weakening of those laws, followed by more oppression, and more resistance, has affected and afflicted every generation.
And even as we’ve seen some major barriers come crashing down in recent years, we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we didn’t acknowledge just how many injustices persist.
Where you live shouldn’t determine whether you get educated. Where you go to school shouldn’t determine whether you get textbooks. The opportunity you access should be determined by the fierceness of your intellect, the courage of your creativity, and the grit that allows you to overcome expectations that weren’t set high enough.
We’ve seen remarkable breakthroughs in medical research, yet race-based disparities in health outcomes still persist. You are 41% more likely to die of breast cancer if you are an African-American woman in America today than if you are white.
You are 2.3 times more likely to die of prostate cancer if you are an African-American man than if you are white.
If you are African-American, you are more likely to be stopped by the police, more likely to be issued a ticket after being stopped, and more likely to be threatened with the use of force than if you are white.
This is our reality. This is the world you are inheriting.
Now, I am not telling you these things because I am bitter or because I want you to be bitter.
I don’t call upon you to be bitter, I call upon you to make things better. Because the great lesson of my life is that despite the challenges we face, America is an extraordinary country. Our world is getting smaller by the day. And you are equipped with every tool to make it your own.
Today, for the first time in human history, success requires no prerequisite of wealth or capital – no ownership of land, or natural resources, or people.
Today, success can be created solely through the power of one’s mind, ideas, and courage. Intellectual capital can be cultivated, monetized, and instantaneously distributed across the globe.
Intellectual capital has become the new currency of business and finance – and the promise of brainpower to move people from poverty to prosperity has never been more possible.
Technology is creating a whole new set of on-ramps to the 21st century economy, and together we will help assure that African Americans will acquire the tech skills and be the beneficiaries in sectors that are being automated.
Black men understand that securing the bag is just the beginning — that success is only real if our community is protected, if our potential is realized and if our most valuable assets — our people — find strength in owning the businesses that provide economic stability in our community.
This is your moment, graduates. Between doubt and destiny is action. Between our community and the American Dream is leadership. Your leadership. Your destiny.
This doesn’t mean ignoring injustice, it means using your strength to restore order.
And when you are confronted with racism, listen to the words of Guy Johnson, the son of Maya Angelou, who once said that, “Racism is like gravity, you got to keep pushing against it without spending too much time thinking about it.”
So…how do you seize your American Dream? Let me get specific. Let me give you five rules that I live by.
The first rule you need to know is that nothing replaces actually doing the work.
Whenever a young person tells me they aspire to be an entrepreneur, I ask them why. For many, they think of it as a great way to get rich quick. Invent an app, sell a company, make a few million before you’re 25.
Look, that can happen, but it’s awfully rare. The usual scenario is that successful entrepreneurs spend endless hours, days, and years toiling away for little pay and zero glamor.
And in all honesty, that is where the joy of success actually resides. Before I ever got into private equity, I was a chemical engineer, and I spent pretty much every waking hour in windowless labs doing the work that helped me become an expert in my field.
It was only after I put in the time to develop this expertise and the discipline of the scientific process that I was able to apply my knowledge beyond the lab.
Greatness is born out of the grind. Embrace the grind. A thoughtful and intentional approach to “the grind” will help you to become an expert in your craft. When I meet a black man or woman who is at the top of their industry, I see the highest form of execution. That’s no accident. There’s a good chance it took that black leader a whole lot more grinding to get to where they are.
I look at the current and former black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies whom I admire, and they blow me away every time I met with them. Bernard Tyson, Ken Frazier, Ken Chenault, Dick Parsons, Ursula Burns, the late Barry Rand. They may not have attended Morehouse, but they have the Morehouse attitude.
They knew that being the best means grinding every day. It means putting in the ten thousand-plus hours necessary to become a master of your craft.
Muhammad Ali once said, “I hated every minute of training, But I thought to myself, suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”
Grind it out — and live your life as a champion.
My second rule to live by is to take thoughtful risks.
My Granddad took a particular interest in my career, and he couldn’t have been prouder of my stable engineering job at Kraft-General Foods. For him, to have that kind of job security at my age was a dream come true.
When I told him I was thinking of leaving for graduate school, he was beyond worried. Then, you can imagine how he worried some years later when I told him I was going to leave Goldman Sachs, where I had achieved a good level of success, to start my own private equity firm focused on enterprise software.
I respected my Granddad and his wisdom, his thoughtfulness, and his protectiveness over me. But I had also done my homework. I calculated my odds of success, and importantly, I knew that one of the fundamental design points of achieving the American Dream was to be a business owner.
So I decided with confidence that I was willing to make a big bet on the one asset I had the most knowledge of: myself.
There are always reasons to be risk-averse. Graduating from Morehouse can make you risk-averse, because the path you’re on, if you stick to the more conservative choices, is still pretty darn good.
That doesn’t mean you should gamble with your career or careen from job to job just because the grass appears to be greener. But it does mean that you should evaluate options for taking business and career risks…do the analysis, and trust your instincts.
When you bet on yourself — that’s likely to be a pretty good bet!
My third rule is to be intentional about the words you choose.
I know Morehouse has taught you that you what you say carries with it enormous power.
Be intentional about the words you speak.
How you define yourself.
What you call each other.
The people you spend time with.
And the love you create.
All of this matters immensely. It will define you.
My fourth rule — which is my favorite — is to always know that you are enough.
I mentioned that before going into investment banking at Goldman Sachs, I worked in applied engineering for Kraft General Foods. And I loved it!
Until one day I was at a meeting with a number of department heads in my division and as we went around the conference table discussing the division’s most important strategic initiatives, I realized that of the top six, I was leading five of them.
I was half the age of everyone, yet I knew I was making just a third as much as anyone else in the room. And I said to myself, I’m either doing something very right or very wrong. Truthfully it was a bit of both. So, it became a lesson in realizing my worth and self-worth.
It isn’t just about salary, though that always matters. It’s also about demanding respect from others — and from yourself. A realization and respect for all of the skills and talents you bring to the table.
When you have confidence in your own worth, you’ll become the one to raise your hand for the hard assignment that may mean putting in time on nights and weekends, but also means you’ll be gaining incremental skills and experiences to enhance your craftsmanship.
Earn your respect through your body of work. Let the quality of your work product speak of your capabilities.
Know that you are only bound by the limits of your own conviction.
You are Morehouse Men. There is no room on this earth you can’t enter with your head held high. You will likely encounter people in your life, as I have, who want to make you feel like you don’t belong… but when you respect your own body of work, that is all the respect you need.
In the words of the great Quincy Jones and Ray Charles, “Not one drop of my self worth depends on your acceptance of me.”
You are enough.
The fifth lesson and final lesson for today is as follows:
We all have the responsibility to liberate others so that they can become their best selves — in human rights, the arts, business, and in life.
The fact is, as the next generation of African-American leaders, you won’t just be on the bus, you must own it, drive it, and pick up as many as you can carry along the way.
More than the money we make, the awards, or recognition, or titles we earn, each of us will be measured by how much we contribute to the success of the people around us.
How many people will you get onto your bus number 13?
We need you to become the elected officials who step up and fix the laws that engender discrimination and who set a tone of respect in our public discourse.
We need you to become the c-suite executives who change corporate culture, build sustainable business models, and make diversity and inclusion a core and unshakeable value.
We need you to become the entrepreneurs who will innovate inclusively, expand wages for all Americans, and lower the unemployment rate in our communities.
We need you to be the educators who set the highest standards and demand the resources needed to deliver on them and inspire the next generation.
We need you to invest in the real estate and businesses in our communities and create value for all in that community.
No matter what profession you choose, each of you must be a community builder. No matter how far you travel, you can’t ever forget where you came from.
You are responsible for building strong, safe places where our young brothers and sisters can grow with confidence… watch and learn from positive role models, and believe that, they too, are entitled to the American Dream.
You Men of Morehouse are already doing this. Your own Student Government, in fact, sends students on a bus to underserved communities around the country to empower young black men and women to seize their own narrative and find power in their voices.
This is exactly the kind of leadership I’m talking about.
Remember that building community doesn’t always have to be about sweeping change. But it does have to be intentional.
You can’t just be a role model sometimes. I’m cognizant of the fact that whenever I’m out in public, people are observing my actions. The same goes for you.
Building community can’t be insular.
The world has never been smaller, so we need to help our communities think bigger.
I’ve invested particularly in internship programs, because I’ve observed the power of exposing young minds to the opportunity out there that they don’t see in their own neighborhoods.
Help those around you see the beauty of the vast world out there, and help them believe that they, too, can capture that dream.
And remember that community can be anywhere.
Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, community was a few blocks around where I grew up. Today, we, you, can create communities of people anywhere in the world. Merging the physical and digital communities will be one of the great opportunities you have and you will have in the years going forward.
Finally, don’t forget that community thrives in the smallest of gestures. Be the first to congratulate a friend on a new job, buy their new product first, and post on social media about how great it is, and also be the first to console them when they face adversity.
Treat all people with dignity, even if you can’t see how they can be of help to you.
And most important of all, whatever it takes, never, ever forget to call your mother. And I do mean call — don’t text, a text doesn’t count!
Speaking of mothers, allow me a point of personal privilege to end with a story that speaks volumes about mine.
In the summer of 1963, when I was just nine months old, my mother hauled my brother and me 1,700 miles from Denver to Washington, DC so that we could be there for a Morehouse Man’s historic speech.
My mother knew that her boys would be too young to remember that speech, but she believed that the history we witnessed that day on the National Mall would always be a part of the men we would one day become.
And Mom was right, as usual. I still feel that day in my bones, and it echoes all around us here at Morehouse.
Decades after that cross-country trip, I had the privilege to take my granddad with me to the opposite side of the National Mall to celebrate the inauguration of the first African-American president.
As we sat in the audience on that cold morning, he pointed to a window just behind the flag, in the Capitol Building and he said, “You know, grandson, when I was a teenager I used to work in that room right there, in the Senate Lounge, I used to serve coffee and tea and take hats and coats for the senators.” He said, “I recall looking out that window during Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration.”
He said, “Son, I did not see one black face in the crowd that day – so here we are, you and I, watching this.”
He said, “Grandson, you can see how America can change when people have the will to make change.”
The beautiful symmetry of our return to the Nation’s Capital under such different circumstances was not lost on us — the poetry of time and soul that Lincoln called the “mystic chords of memory” resonated in both of our hearts.
You cannot have witnessed the history I have, or walked the halls of Morehouse for four years as you have, without profound respect for the unsung everyday heroes who, generation after generation, little by little, nudged, shoved, and ultimately bent that “arc of the moral universe” a little closer to justice.
This is the history and heritage you inherit today. This is the responsibility that now lies upon your broad shoulders.
True wealth comes from contributing to the liberation of people. The liberation of the communities we come from depends on the grit and greatness inside you.
Use your skills, your knowledge, your instincts to serve — to change the world in the way that only you can.
You great Morehouse Men are bound only by the limits of your conviction and creativity. You have the power within you to be great, be you. Be unstoppable, be undeniable, and accomplish the things no one ever thought you could.
You are well on your way. I’m counting on you to load up your bus and share that journey.
Let’s never forget what Dr. King said in the final moments of his famous sermon at Ebenezer Baptist, “I want to be on your right side or your left side, in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world…a new world.”
Graduates, look to your right side and your left. Actually, take a moment. Stand up, give each other a hug. I am going to wait.
Men of Morehouse, you are surrounded by a community of people who have helped you arrive at this sacred place on this sacred day.
On behalf of the eight generations of my family who have been in this country, we are going to put a little fuel in your bus.
Now, we’ve got the alumni over there. This is a challenge for you.
This is my class — 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans. Now, I know my class will make sure they pay this forward. And I want my class to look at these alumni, these beautiful Morehouse brothers — and let’s make sure every class has the same opportunity moving forward — because we are enough to take care of our own community.
We are enough to ensure we have all the opportunities of the American Dream. And we will show it to each other through our actions, through our words, and through our deeds.
So, class of 2019:
May the sun always shine upon you.
May the wind always be at your back.
And may God always hold you in the cradle of Her hands.
Now go forth and make this old world new.