Gov. William Winter’s Commencement Address
The University of Mississippi
Oxford, May 10, 2003
I want you to know how much it means to me to be here on this campus today and to participate in this historic 150th commencement ceremony. To tell you why this is so meaningful to me I must go back briefly in memory to another commencement sixty years ago. It was in Fulton Chapel in the summer of 1943 in the middle of World War II. My junior ROTC class had been called to active duty in May, but we were permitted to stay on campus if we could complete the required hours to graduate in summer school. I quickly calculated that I could graduate by taking 27 hours.
So, wearing the uniform of a private in the U.S. Army, I became a soldier-student for three month before going off to the real army. But what I remember most about that summer experience was my association with one of the most memorable and impressive persons whom I have ever known. A man named Eddie Khayat had left a successful teaching and coaching career at Moss Point High School to come to direct the physical training program for the military personnel then stationed on the campus. We ROTC students became his special assignment. Coach Khayat got us into such incredible physical condition that summer that infantry basic training and later officer candidate school were a piece of cake. But more than that he taught us about the importance of things like discipline and responsibility and love of country. Eddie Khayat made us incomparably better soldiers and better citizens. I shall never forget the influence which he had on my life just as none of us gathered here today can fail to appreciate the influence that Eddie Khayat’s son has had and continues to have on all of us because of his visionary leadership of this university.
These reflections bring me to what I want to talk about today. And I have no illusions that little if anything of what I say here today will be worthy of long remembering. There are too many other things to try to think about than what some old eighty-year old man said in a commencement address. Now having agreed on that, let me say the words that all of you want most of all to hear from me: I shall not talk very long.
I shall, however, not do what the noted scientist, Dr. Albert Einstein, is reported to have done on one occasion. That internationally famous man was invited to speak at the University of Pennsylvania at a campus assembly no unlike this one. He was introduced in glowing terms to a very large and prestigious audience. Whereupon, he stood up, went to the podium, and said, “Thank you very much for inviting me to speak, but I have nothing to say.”
He then went back to his chair and sat down, but realizing that he needed to add a word of explanation, he returned to the podium and said, “But when I do have something to say, I will let you know.”
Now I am not going to do that this morning. Whether I have anything worthwhile to say or not, I shall just go ahead and say it anyway. But again I assure you that I shall not take long.
I come here today with one specific message and that is to say to you who are receiving your diplomas that as you achieve this significant milestone, I hope you will remember how you got here and, more than that, what your obligation now is. There is not a single one of us, regardless of our age or station in life or where we came from, who did not arrive on the back of somebody else – of our parents or grandparents or teachers or neighbors or friends.
We are who we are because of the help and support and encouragement of others. I know that has been true in my own life. In addition to knowing Eddie Khayat, it was my good fortune to have been taught here at Ole Miss by some visionary and inspired teachers — men like Jim Silver and H.B. Howerton and Alton Bryant and Bob Farley, to name just a few who made all the difference for me. They helped me to explore and embrace fresh ideas. They helped liberate me to be and do more than I had previously thought I was capable of. They opened up for me a whole new whole new world and taught me how to think for myself. I know all of you have had a similar experience here at Ole Miss.
And so how do we go about justifying this good fortune that has made us all the beneficiaries of what so many others have done for us. Let me give you this to think about.
Whether we recognize it or not – whether we want to accept it or not – all of us are parties to a contract that was entered into by our forebears a long time ago. That contract was expressed in the words of the Declaration of Independence when we pledged to each other “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor,” words which eleven years later after a bloody Revolutionary War found substance in the formation of our Constitution and the American Union.
Those were not intended to be “throw away” words. They bind us today just as surely as they bound the people who wrote them. And, if anything, their significance is greater now than they were then because the world smaller and more dangerous now, the issues are more complex and the stakes are higher.
All of this simply means that we cannot live in isolation from each other, and we must find ways to give real meaning to that contract that we have with each other. Here is how I think we need to do it.
It is one thing to shoot for the stars and aspire to be in the top echelon of business or politics or the professions. There is nothing wrong with having those ambitions, but the reality is that most of us are going to find our highest level of fulfillment and satisfaction in association with our families and neighbors in the communities where we live. It is here that we affirm not our individual independence but our mutual interdependence. It is here that we build the social bridges that make us a strong and vibrant and more just society.
In this context I would recall the words of a highly respected Mississippi political leader in the last century. Senator Leroy Percy of Greenville had just been defeated for reelection to the U.S. Senate in a bitter racist campaign. One of his supporters sought to cheer him up with a letter lamenting his loss.
Senator Percy wrote him back saying that he did not consider it necessary to be in the U.S. Senate to be a force for good citizenship. Then he went on to say this:
If I can keep this small corner of the United States in which I reside comparatively clean and decent and fit for a man to live in and in such condition that he will not be ashamed to pass it on to his children, I will have accomplished all I hope to do.
As never before in our history we are called upon to sustain and expand our commitment to building up the communities where we live. As far as we have come, we must understand how much more we have to do. For unless we continue to work to bridge the fault lines of race and class and educational and financial disparity that still divide us, we can never expect to reach our true potential as a state and as a nation. These problems weigh particularly heavily on us here in Mississippi, and we all have to be involved in solving them…
I have had the high privilege of serving as governor of this state. I do not intend to diminish the significance of that office when I tell you that it is not the most important office in our state. The most important office is that of citizen. It is the office that transmits all political authority.
Only through the collective judgment of private citizens, acting through their elected agents, are the public decisions made that affect the ultimate quality of our lives. Unfortunately too few of us take that office of citizen seriously enough. Too few of us choose to exercise the power that goes with that office. Too many of us do not bother to vote or to participate in the process of deciding vital public policy – of what kind of schools we shall have, of the quality of the environment in which we live, or the future of our most treasured institutions like this university.
Therein lies the potential for our greatest peril. Without discounting the imminent threat of terrorism, I submit to you that over the long haul terrorism may not be the gravest danger to our future as a nation. The gravest danger may lie in letting ourselves be overwhelmed by fear or suspicion or apathy or cynicism; by putting our petty self-serving personal interests ahead of community building; by making the question, “What’s in it for me?” our principal concern; in short by forgetting about that contract that we have with each other.
If we become a society riven by race and class where the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen, we shall pay a huge penalty in the quality of our lives and the stability of our country in the future.
A democratic society cannot leave these problems to be solved by blind chance or individual impulse. We must work at it together. We must have a shared vision that recognizes our mutual obligation. It is a vision that must be transmitted to others. This university is now recognized as a center of influence for establishing that vision, and you who are or soon will be its alumni must carry that torch.
All of us must work at helping create more knowledgeable and informed public opinion that will be able to stand up to the demagogues and the political hucksters. It is a sad commentary on our so-called enlightened society when the inane and preposterous opinions expressed on a lot of talk radio and on some TV shows appear to have more acceptance among many people than the thoughtful voices of reason. You must represent those voices of reason. That is how you pay your dues for the privilege of being a graduate of Ole Miss and of living in a free society.
Let me close by telling you about a young Mississippian who understood this:
She was a student at Tougaloo College. She told me, “It’s payback time for me. I’m going to pay some folks back.”
She could have said that in anger, but she didn’t seem angry. When she was thirteen years old, the police in Jackson found her living in an abandoned house with her younger sister and brother. Deserted by her parents, she was selling drugs in order to live. They put them all in foster homes. She started back to school, and with encouragement and support from some wonderful teachers she wound up finishing first in her class at Jim Hill High School.
That was when I first met her. I helped her get a Coca-Cola scholarship to Tougaloo, where she graduated. Dr. Wally Conerly arranged for her to work summers at the University Medical Center in Jackson. Since then she has finished at the Brown University Medical School in Providence, Rhode Island, and is now doing a residency at Northwestern University in Chicago.
“It’s payback time,” she says. “I’m coming back to Mississippi and help those people who helped me, who rescued me from the streets and sent me to school and let me get to be a doctor. It’s payback time.”
If we will only think about it, it’s payback time for all of us.