CBS News correspondent DeMarco Morgan told nearly 700 undergraduates during Jackson State University’s commencement Saturday morning that he was destined not to become another statistic despite finishing at the bottom of his class, being told by an English teacher he would amount to little and rejection by a dozen colleges – except JSU.
With an ACT score of only 13, the urban HBCU was the lone institution of higher learning to give him a chance to prove himself.
The only thunder roaring on this mostly cloudy ceremony came from the mouth of keynote speaker Morgan. He delivered a passionate testimony about perseverance when dreams are deferred, friends forsake you, mentors go mum and relationships are ruined. It was a rousing message that electrified an audience of thousands and gave everyone the belief that they, too, can defy the odds.
Even interim JSU President Rod Paige was spellbound by Morgan’s riveting story.
“Wow! What a blessing … a Jackson State alum … a powerful message,” he said. Of Morgan’s success, Paige added, “That’s what happens when you work hard, when you’re committed, when you’re dedicated. … I’m kind of choked up after that.”
That reaction was similar to many others in the audience as Morgan dissected his family’s life of hardships.
At age 10, Morgan lost his father to a massive heart attack on Father’s Day; his oldest brother “chose the life of street gangs, drugs and prison.” His mother worked as many as three jobs “to make ends meet.” Because of her commitment, he was determined to become the first in his family to graduate from college.THEN, there was once a job demotion, failed relationships, “friends who’ve turned their backs on me” and mentors who “stopped answering my calls for guidance and help.”
Through it all, he said his mother told him there would be days such as these. He remembered those words after placing his trust in people who didn’t have his best interests at heart. Even in his broadcasting career, he’d been passed up on major assignments.
“But over the years, I’ve learned that whatever God has for you is yours. And, there ain’t a devil in hell that can keep you from getting it,” he advised.
He shared with graduates that his mother once sold her wedding ring to help provide for him while he was a student at JSU.
Furthermore, he recalls being in the memorial stadium 20 years ago as Mr. Freshman on Game Day.
“My shoes were a size too small; my suit was too big, and I had a thick Richard Pryor mustache … that made me look older than everyone in my entire freshman class.” Despite those inconveniences or odd appearances, he said, “Sitting in the stadium joining thousands of students and alums, all of us were electrified, dancing and chanting in a magical wave: ‘Fired up, J-State, fired up!’ It was a sense of school spirit and pride that I had never experienced coming from my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. I never imagined that same energy would carry me for the next two decades.”
He said JSU prepared him for the moments “when I felt like throwing in the towel.”
He unloaded three other points on the audience.
- The dream: “If you have no dream, no vision or no clues as to where you want to go in life and what you want to do when you get there, your legacy is in jeopardy.”
- The test: “If you have no test, no adversity, no challenges, no struggles or setbacks, how would you know what you’re capable of overcoming?”
- The victory: “If you have no victory – no matter how big or small the feat – you will live a life only knowing what it’s like to lose, being bitter, selfish and wallowing in a spirit of doubt.”
Specifically, Morgan’s dream was to become a broadcaster. He set his sights on his goal after a news event born out of tragedy.
He recalled the horrific 1986 tragedy of the space shuttle Challenger when he was in the second grade. Like many Americans, he was glued to the television, preparing to watch the first schoolteacher blast into space with other astronauts.AFTER liftoff, everything seemed fine. However, moments later an explosion occurred. Soon thereafter, then-CBS anchor Dan Rather reported what the nation had feared: Everyone aboard perished on that fateful day in June 2016. That unfortunate event reeled in Morgan and piqued his interest in media. “I couldn’t wait to get home every day after school to catch the evening news with Dan Rather.”
Three decades later, another tragedy commanded Morgan’s attention. This time, however, he was sitting in the same studio once occupied by Rather. After 49 people were gunned down in an Orlando, Fla., nightclub massacre, Morgan was asked to occupy the anchor chair for the special report while evening news anchor Scott Pelley was en route to the studio.
“I had no time to think about how far I had come or whether or not I was prepared to handle the enormous task, but little did I know Jackson State had prepared me all along. … My dream of anchoring and reporting for a major television network had come true in that moment.”
Morgan credits the countless hours and days spent writing and editing at the campus television station (TV-23).
That experience was a new beginning for Morgan, just as it was for many of the graduates poised to the start the next chapter of their lives.
For example, graduate Sherelle Meddow in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology, began thinking about a medical career. She received her degree in biology. The native of the Bahamas said she would next pursue her master’s degree and, ultimately, attend medical school. “I was really nervous today, but I’m extremely happy now,” said Meddow, who hasn’t decided on which medical specialty to pursue.
Ashton Oliver of Jackson earned his degree in graphics design from the College of Liberal Arts. “Today is a new beginning,” he said. “It’s a breakthrough academically and will open up a lot of doors for me.” Oliver said he aspires to become a model, but, in the meantime, he will focus on art and photography. He’s also planning to apply to the Savannah (Ga.) College of Art and Design.
Also during the graduation ceremony, Paige bestowed special honors to two families.
He conferred honorary degrees in Doctorate of Humane Letters to philanthropists Winston R. Pittman Sr., a JSU alum, and wife Alma for their generous contributions.
The Pittmans completed their pledge of $250,000 last year – a gift matched by the U.S. Department of Education, bringing the total to $500,000. In October 2012, JSU held a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the College of Business building to dedicate in their honor the Winston R. Pittman Sr. and Alma Dent Pittman Auditorium.‘THE ultimate goal of the university is to provide a world-class education that prepares students to compete in a global market,” Paige said. “Jackson State University has been doing that for 140 years primarily due to the support from our generous alumni and friends.”
The Pittmans are owners of the seventh-largest automotive group in the nation, with dealerships throughout the Southern states, including the Midwest.
After accepting the honor, Winston Pittman told graduates “you must be willing to serve. … You are the future of this great university, this country.” He said he and wife believe it’s their duty to help students achieve their goals. He urged graduates to remember that they did not get this far in life without mothers, fathers, relatives and others. “Jackson State helped my wife and I get to where we are in life. … Without my parents, without my schoolteachers, without my community nothing would have happened without that help,” he said.
Alma Pittman said, “This honor is far more than I can fathom. I owe all of this to the grace of God and to JSU’s faculty, staff and students. The recognition will lead me to go even further and do bigger and better things in life. I have a friendship with Jackson State University, Dr. Paige and Dr. Mary White (chair of the Department of Entrepreneurship and Small Business Management in the College of Business at JSU.)” White was instrumental in forging the relationship with the Pittmans.
In addition, Alma Pittman said, “This partnership provides an opportunity to help others who lack financial resources to attend school. Jackson State, which means the world to me, is among several places we give to make a difference in the lives of our young people.”
Paige also paid a memorial tribute to former longtime professor Dr. Maria Luisa Alvarez Harvey for her 50-plus year legacy at JSU and for “furthering the idea that an individual can rise from humble beginnings and contribute richly in the lives she touched.”
Paige credited Alvarez Harvey for drafting the foundation for JSU’s honors program. “A number of students have benefited from her mentorship and guidance. Her dedication was awesome. Although it’s difficult to measure the magnitude of Dr. Harvey’s 50 years of academic contributions, Jackson State announces two important measures. We hope it will be a fitting tribute to her legacy.”
Posthumously, Paige bestowed the title of professor emeritus to Alvarez Harvey. Also, the Honors College that she started is now renamed the W.E.B. Du Bois and the Maria Luisa Alvarez Harvey Honors College.”
Alvarez Harvey’s son, Rogelio V. Solis, a JSU alum and longtime photographer with the Associated Press, describes the recognition as bittersweet months after her death.‘OF the 50-plus years of my mother’s tenure as a Jackson State educator … she did not have the opportunity to enjoy the award and acclaim for the many years of her service. At the same time, we take great pride.” Solis expressed appreciation to Paige and others for bestowing the emeritus status. “It does adequately honor my mother along with the university’s decision to adapt the name of the Honors College. … It is really a wonderful token.”
Solis said he estimates that his mother had 6,000 graduates throughout her half-century of service. As it relates to the honors program, “my mother never turned a student away,” he said, even if they did not have the grade or the ACT score. She felt that every student that had the drive and the determination to get that degree deserved to be part of the program. … She wanted students to realize that education is the key to a better life, and they needed to demand it of their professors and families to pursue these degrees,” said Solis, also a former adjunct professor at JSU.
He described his mother as a “force of nature” who challenged administrators, professors and students to make education a priority.
Meanwhile, after a morning filled with many testimonies and special recognitions, Morgan’s final charge to graduates aimed to make sure they would never give up in the face of adversity.
“When you leave this stadium and start anew be confident in knowing that you have what it requires to take on the world in every field of human endeavor. Jackson State has prepared you. … Don’t ever give up in your darkest hours because I’m proof that’s when God does his best work.”
Just as important, he urged graduates to establish a support group, especially among those who will tell you when you’re right and when you’re wrong. And, if your mentors aren’t pushing you to be greater than they are, fire them. … And when that sweet victory arrives … you have a responsibility to give back to your community and our dear old college home,” Morgan said.