By Rachel James-Terry
The future of the world “depends on the individual and collective genius that you possess,” Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said to over 800 undergraduates at Jackson State University’s spring commencement.On Saturday, the sun beamed brightly amid shouts of triumph, toothy-grins, families, friends and soon-to-be degree holders at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium. Lumumba, the keynote speaker, expressed his pride in the graduates and encouraged them to make lasting memories while wishing them deserved happiness and success.
Son of community activists – late Mayor Chokwe Lumumba and Nubia Lumumba – the mayor holds a bachelor of arts from Tuskegee University and a law degree from Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University.
In the 2017 Democratic mayoral primary, he beat out nine candidates with 55 percent of the vote. He then went on to win the city’s general election. As mayor, he has been recognized as one of Mississippi’s Top 50 Most Influential Leaders and was named one of the 100 Most Influential African Americans of 2017 by the Root.
Lumumba shared with the audience that he was reminded of his 2005 graduation that took place on Mother’s Day. He calls it bittersweet due to his mother passing the summer before his junior year.“It was a day she often spoke of and was looking forward to attending. My mother was the first person to truly believe in me,” he says, adding that his father needed more convincing.
The mayor reminds graduates, as they relish in the joy of the moment that people both known and unknown are vested in their achievements.
“My father once stated that our talents are not ours alone. They are the fruits of our labor as a people belonging to us all and they must be used accordingly,” says Lumumba.
JSU President Dr. William B. Bynum Jr. also commended graduates during his greetings at the start of the ceremony. He lavished praise on the “parents, grandparents, spouses, children, aunts, uncles, relatives and significant others who have gone above and beyond in supporting our graduates in so many ways.”
Bynum further requested that “mama,’nem, please stand and be recognized” then jovially reassured listeners that they had heard him correctly.
The president also thanked faculty and staff for their tutelage and advisement while spotlighting the alumni for their ongoing support of “our students with their time, talents and treasure.”Lumumba informed graduates that commencement marked the day that their names would be added to the alumni scrolls with individuals who have made lasting marks in the areas of health, science, education, social change, and professional athletics among others.
“You share a common thread and experience with these giants, and you have a common call to make your impression on the world,” he says.
After acknowledging that obstacles abound, the mayor asserts that it is the response to adversity that becomes an individuals’ defining moment. He then delineates several difficult scenarios that students may have encountered on their academic journey, such as working multiple jobs to pay for school; laboring over the decision to drop out; choosing between class and family obligations; and a lack of financial resources and healthcare.
The young shall lead
“You have become well aware of the challenges and obstacles of obtaining your degrees. And you know through personal experience that you must be devoted to unearthing the root of these fiery trials,” he says, insisting that it will take their brilliance, fortitude, and empathy to transform conditions that give rise to these issues.JSU’s own Dr. Margaret Walker Alexander, Lumumba points out, believed that basic institutions of home, school and church are threatened by the same violent destruction that undermines socioeconomic and political systems, calling them part and parcel of the same whole.
He advises that the approach to educational practices in times of political turmoil and systemic disregard for black people reflect the longstanding mission of HBCUs.
“As a proud HBCU grad, I believe in sustaining our institutions because we deserve to absolutely self-determine our learning and our lives,” he says.
One of the youngest mayors in the country, elected at the age of 34, Lumumba informed the crowd that institutional and organizational leadership is rapidly becoming younger and that the graduates are poised to be great and impactful with every decision they make.
“Your time to change the world is not coming it is now,” he commands, warning that “many will suggest that you are simply too young and others may even question the sincerity of your efforts.”He reminds them that nearly every modern change movement in the world has been anchored by young people, often in the face of criticism.
“Criticism is something that we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing and being nothing. You can’t allow praise or criticism to get to you. It is a weakness to be caught up in either one,” said Lumumba.
He also suggests that the graduates steer clear of cynics or contrarians who attempt to bait them on social media. “Don’t worry about the person questioning you in the comments. The critics are doing their job. You must focus on the work and do yours,” he advises.With the news full of stories involving the maltreatment of African-Americans, the mayor tells graduates that as young black men and women, they must not forget that they live in a world where they are still in danger.
“It is a sobering reality that your degrees cannot shield you from injustice, but you hold the potential to change the world far beyond our wildest dreams,” he says.
In closing, Lumumba vows to stand and fight with graduates against, what he describes as, an endless cycle of poverty and exploitation.
“Today, I hope that those who would dare marginalize and oppress feel a little less powerful because you are being released into society armed with your intellect,” he bellows from the podium.
The graduating class represents the era of disruption, Lumumba affirms, and that they must dismantle the status quo and shift the paradigm that has tolerated conditions that treat people as less than human beings.
“Gone will be the days where we exist in political spaces where people have no power to truly control their own lives.” He charges, “This is the generation who will declare we no longer want to be governed, we want to be governor.”
Looking towards the future
Computer science graduate Karmeen Powell-Childress voiced her pleasure with the university’s choice in commencement speaker, saying: “We must highlight our local champions so that students know that we have wonderful examples in our midst. I also felt that it was a demonstration of the relationship between JSU and the city of Jackson.”She also applauds president Bynum for driving home the point that they are God’s children. “He makes it his mission to speak life into all of us at Jackson State,” she says.
Now with a degree in civil engineering, graduate Pierre Dunagin is ready to start his job at one of the top Marine companies in the United States. He declares graduation a truly unforgettable accomplishment.
“It’s even that much sweeter when your college is one of the greatest HBCUs that the world has to offer,” he says. “My college experience has been nothing but bliss. I am truly thankful for the education, culture, wisdom, pride, heritage, and love that Jackson State was able to impart.”
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