The 2018 graduate commencement speaker at Jackson State University told more than 300 honorees Friday inside the Lee E. Williams Athletics and Assembly Center that seeing a need is not enough, but doing something about it should be the ideal goal.
JSU alum Dr. Leonard Moore, interim vice president for Diversity and Community Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, expressed concern that many educated African-Americans have become ineffective or lackadaisical about some of the problems plaguing our communities.
“We see the need; we talk about the need; we write about the need; we have conferences about the need; we write books on the need. But, what are we going to do about it?”
Moore, a George Littlefield Professor of American History at UT-Austin, has strived to live up to his obligation of making a difference. He established a study-abroad program that provides minority students with an opportunity to travel to China and South Africa. Ultimately, the global experience would earn students future internships and jobs.
Extending well-wishes to the honorees, JSU President William B. Bynum Jr. also saluted the Class of 2018 and the Golden Class of 1968.
“I encourage you to enjoy this accomplishment you have achieved. It is indeed a tremendous milestone in your life and a major step in starting and/or continuing your career,” Bynum said.
Theon Johnson III, a native of Canton, Miss., was one of those honorees receiving his doctorate degree from Bynum in educational administration in the College of Education and Human Development.
“This was a momentous moment,” Johnson said. “I understood today as an opportunity to celebrate the persistence and diligence of so many students who have made a decision to say yes to your graduate education at Jackson State University.”
With his degree in hand, the now Dr. Johnson said he has been living in the San Francisco Bay area for more than six years and is part of the pastoral team at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church. He will return there to work with the Glide Foundation because it, too, like JSU, has a “commitment to working alongside those whose center of existence is on the margins.”
While Johnson clearly explained his career plans, commencement speaker Moore still asked graduates, “What are you going to do with your degree?” He implored each of them to also foster positive changes in the world and then used his own struggles to illustrate his earlier deficiencies.
“I came out of high school with a 1.6 grade-point average,” said Moore, a native of Cleveland, Ohio. He initially wanted to go to a particular school in his home state but was denied.
“So, my dad said I have a good idea. I’m going to take you on down to Jackson State. … He drops me off. We don’t hug. He gives me a check for tuition and housing and simply said, ‘Handle your business.’ ”
In his third semester at JSU, he accumulated a 1.8 GPA. He saw it as progress from the 1.6 GPA he had in high school. However, a JSU history professor wasn’t impressed.
“That’s what I love about HBCU faculty. They will call you out.” His professor demanded, “Young man, you need to go back to Cleveland, Ohio, and quit wasting your dad’s money.”
Moore said that’s when he understood that “when someone says something that hits a nerve it is probably correct. It was from that small conversation, and then the next 2½ years of being encouraged by other professors, that allowed me to make something of myself.”
Furthermore, he said, “There is a scripture in the New Testament that says, ‘Speak those things that aren’t as though they are.’ I really believe that the faculty of Jackson State University, since 1877, don’t see us for what we are but what we can become.”
Moore said he relished the benefits of attending Mississippi’s urban HBCU. “When I got to grad school I was in class with folks from Michigan, Harvard, Columbia, Standford, Carnegie Mellon, Case Western Reserve, LSU, and other places. And, I never felt for one minute that they had a better undergraduate experience than me.”
Because he wasn’t inferior to his peers, he developed a commencement theme to urge graduates to fulfill society’s needs, especially in the black community.
Also, Moore urged them to become innovative in much the same way he has been effective at UT-Austin.
“At Texas, I noticed that black kids weren’t getting jobs like they should.” So, he found a way to help students build their résumés. “I had this crazy idea that I could take all these black and Latino kids abroad. Later, he would begin planning trips to China and South Africa.
In fall 2012, he flew alone to the Far East region of Beijing to pave a way for the study-abroad program. The following summer, he accompanied 45 students there.
Moore said the experience was amazing because more than 80 percent of those traveling were the first generation in their families to attend college, and only half had ever flown in an aircraft. Stunningly, a male from South Dallas asked, “How do you buy a plane ticket? And, a female student asked, “What is a passport?”
Eventually, upon arrival, the group would hike three hours to the Great Wall of China. Moore recalled that another excited student wondered, “Who would have ever thought that a sister like me from South Dallas would be sitting on the Great Wall of China watching the sun come up?”
Even more amazing, Moore said one student got so hooked on traveling abroad that the following year he decided to extend the leg of his trip to China to include Dubai first, then Beijing, Shanghai and the Philippines. “This is a brother who had never been on an airplane before.”
These students’ travel experiences were unmatched with anything else, Moore said. Even before they are 20 years old, he said, “Here is how we really kill it for these students. … They got all this global internship experience on their résumés. What we have seen is that these kids get amazing job offers.”Then, he urged graduates to be courageous.
“I’m amazed at the number of educated folks who are scared to do something – scared it may not work; scared it may offend somebody; scared they may lose their jobs.” He urged them to “ignore the haters in your life,” reminding them that it could be co-workers, friends or family. “Sometimes your hater is somebody you share a bed with.”
Moore’s final advice to graduates was to trust God to bring success in their lives.
“We, as black folks, must change our mindset. We’ve got to stop playing checkers and start playing chess. In checkers you do the move right in front of you, but in chess you can move from where you were to where you want to end up later in life.”
Know the truth, Moore said. “The reason you’re sitting here today … is simply because God had favor on your life. So, see the need, have compassion and do something about it.”
Moore is an author of three books on black politics: Carl B. Stokes and Rise of Black Political Power; Black Rage in New Orleans: Police Brutality and African American Activism from World War II to Hurricane Katrina; and The Defeat of Black Power: Civil Rights and the National Black Political Convention of 1972.
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