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Remarks by Drew Gilpin Faust at Harvard Black Alumni Weekend

Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, Mass.

As prepared for delivery

Thank you, Evelynn. And thanks also to so many of you who worked so hard to make this reunion possible: Mark Price, Justin Alexander and Natalya Davis, Heather Johnston and many, many more of you who made it possible for the events of this weekend and the gathering today to take place.

There is of course one alumnus missing this weekend, and I think we all know who that is. That would be a former Law Review editor who now occupies the Oval Office as the 44th president of the United States. And also a distinguished alumna, the first lady. They have changed our lives, as well as their own, profoundly. Although I must admit, the challenges of the past nine months do call to mind that humorous headline in The Onion, “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.”

It has been quite a year, quite a journey. And, as we gather to celebrate Black Alumni Weekend, this is quite a remarkable group among whom to reflect on this moment in our history — a moment that has carried us past possibility, towards the reality of a more perfect union. An African-American presidency would have been unimaginable to Richard T. Greener, the College’s first black graduate, a stellar writer and orator in the Class of 1870; or to George Ruffin, elected to the Massachusetts Legislature in 1869, the same year that he became the first black graduate of Harvard Law School; or to W.E.B. Du Bois, the first African American to complete a Harvard Ph.D. He managed this achievement only after, against all odds, he overawed a fund headed by Rutherford B. Hayes after it had withdrawn its search for a black scholarship candidate. “I think you owe an apology to the Negro people,” Du Bois wrote the former president. “I find men willing to help me thro’ cheap theological schools, I find men willing to help me use my hands … but I never found a man willing to help me get a Harvard Ph.D.” Hayes gave him the scholarship.

The remarkable paths to achievement of Du Bois and Barack Obama and so many of this institution’s black alumni stand out because it has been a year, too, that has confronted us with just how imperfect our union still is. It seems safe to say we’re not yet “post-” everything.

At Edward Kennedy’s funeral last month, the program quoted the senator’s words capturing this continuing challenge: “… for all my years in public life,” he said, “I have believed that America must sail toward the shores of liberty and justice for all. There is no end to that journey, only the next great voyage.”

It is a bittersweet truth.

We have come a long way. We still have a long way to go. And we know, as Senator Kennedy knew, that we will never fully get there. That even as we experience historic moments of exhilarating change, there is no end to the horizon of social justice. No final compass point of perfection. Only the next great voyage.

And so as we gather here to celebrate and renew ties with Harvard and with each other, it is a good time to remember that universities and our graduates are especially well-suited to that challenge, because we challenge ourselves. Because we ask questions. Because we embrace doubt and seek out uncomfortable truths. Because we are committed to taking risks for the sake of knowledge, and unafraid to employ that knowledge in the interest of human rights and the public good wherever we can.

John Hope Franklin was an alumnus whose uneasy bond with Harvard elevated and fortified us for some 70 years, including at my installation, where his expressed faith in the university remains one of my greatest inspirations in this office. John Hope once noted that it was at Fisk University, as a sophomore in college, that he first “met a white man who treated [him] as his social and intellectual equal.” John Hope lived and wrote history, and furthered hard-won progress toward equal opportunity and civil rights, including here at Harvard. “All of us,” he urged in his autobiography, “should reflect on the role African Americans have played in compelling this country to live up to its professed ideals…forc[ing] Americans to envision a world beyond race.” He held no illusions about achieving a color-blind world, or any perfect unions. But for Harvard he hoped for “new levels of achievement,” in which we all play a part.

We can look back, probably most of us here, on direct experiences of that progress. For three Septembers I have spoken to the entering freshmen in the Black Students Association, and every time I remind them, as they set off to make the University their own, that for much of its past, Harvard did not belong to all of us. I tell them that in the first 233 years of Harvard’s existence, there were no black alumni and few Catholics or Jews. And, I hardly need say, no women for even longer.

I tell them how W.E.B. Du Bois said he was in but not of Harvard — a sentiment that many of you echoed a century later — and that even though he read Kant in the upper chambers of William James’ house he still said he felt the irony every time he sang “Fair Harvard.” I tell them that had I been an undergraduate here instead of at Bryn Mawr, I would not have been allowed to use Lamont Library, which at that time was open only to men.

Sometimes one barrier even trumped another. There was the brilliant Howard University graduate named Pauli Murray, denied admission to the Law School in 1944 — even after FDR wrote a letter on her behalf to President Conant — not because she was the wrong color, but to borrow a phrase from Sandra Day O’Connor, because she had a “debilitating medical condition” — two X chromosomes. The first X, as Justice O’Connor put it, was no problem. It was that second X that made her unfit for the tough and competitive world of law. Murray pulled no punches. “One of the assets of being a brown American is patience,” she wrote to the Corporation, and said that she could either change her sex or they could change their minds. Neither happened. The first class of women entered the Law School six years later. Murray went to Berkeley, and 10 years later contributed to the NAACP’s litigation strategy in Brown v. Board of Education. “You are not denying a mere woman an opportunity,” she had told our faculty. “You are denying a promising and potential legal scholar the right to use 550,000 volumes in your library and the opportunity, perhaps, to make a contribution to legal thought.” You might say she proved her point.

Harvard’s record is far from perfect — no matter that it was sometimes better than our sister institutions, or sometimes little different.

And yet, here I am, and here you are, and we must remember how that came about. How Harvard and other institutions of higher learning eventually helped make Obama’s election, and Du Bois’ career, and so many once unimaginable achievements possible. Because universities, even the oldest and most tradition-bound, stand for the freedom of ideas. Because universities embody our faith in discourse and democratic values. Because universities, however imperfect, make a path toward the more perfect.

Let me give you one example. In 1922, President Lowell called for excluding black undergraduates from the freshmen dorms. The alumni responded, many of them in letters, and 143 of them in a petition, in what former President Eliot publicly called “a marvelous and … inspiring burst of public opinion,” rightly opposing, he said, quoting one alumnus, “‘every form of racial discrimination in the universities of our heterogeneous democracy’” — discrimination that would “‘violate … precious Harvard traditions.’” The Board of Overseers overruled Lowell and his proposed policy of exclusion. In reality, the face of Harvard did not much change. Exclusionary custom still dampened black inclusion for decades to come. Yet eventually those voices for change grew louder, and the best principles of our past were able to seize a more open and inclusive future.

So here we are, despite the old odds — because of so many, including many of you, who have worked and struggled to change those odds, who have made this a very different time, and a very different place, and a very different Harvard.

There are many reasons for our progress.

One of them is the power of our ideas. For more than a century, the intellectual work of Harvard’s faculty and alumni has shaped the national and international conversation about justice and equality.

Think about it. In civil rights — Harvard produced not just Du Bois but early faculty abolitionists like Henry Ware, who founded the Cambridge Anti-Slavery Society; alumnus Charles Sumner, who suffered a beating on the Senate floor for his anti-slavery views and who brought us the very first civil rights bill; Ralph Bunche, the Nobel laureate whose work on race and peace across many disciplines touched not just Americans but Africa and the Middle East; Muriel Snowden, who founded Freedom House civic center in Roxbury and was a force for calm during Boston’s school integration crisis; and Larry Tribe, our constitutional law professor, who co-wrote the brief that helped persuade the Supreme Court to uphold affirmative action in the Grutter case at Michigan Law School. And this is a list that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface. Alumni in the arts and social sciences have shaped our perceptions of race and identity — novelists James Alan McPherson and Andrea Lee, and philosopher Alain Locke, the first black Rhodes Scholar, who in dazzling prose defined the Harlem Renaissance. Max Bond — distinguished architect whose life is commemorated in an exhibition currently on display at the GSD. Economists, educators, and historians, not only John Hope Franklin but Nathan Huggins, who have changed our understanding of American society and history. Professor Huggins brought a steady hand to Harvard’s young Afro-American department in 1980. The university of 1970, where a Radcliffe alumna remembered she could not find “a single professor willing or knowledgeable to supervise a senior paper on black women in politics,” was a thing of the past. That university became a thing of the past. Over the past two decades, Skip Gates’s visionary leadership built the department and The Du Bois Institute into the world’s premier centers of African-American research. In the fields of medicine and public health, sociology and the cognitive sciences, faculty and alumni have altered our questions and assumptions about society and about race. Just one example is the implicit association test, a remarkable social cognition project now online that has revealed our unconscious biases and the cognitive routes of group identity. Another and, perhaps, less obvious reason for our progress has been the power of students themselves to effect change.

The theme of this weekend is “Turning Excellence Into Action: Inspiring Change at Harvard and Beyond.” In the tumultuous Harvard April of 1969, that was the order of the day. More than 6,000 students rallied into Soldiers Field on a Monday afternoon, and voted for a list of demands laid out by Harvard teaching fellows, one of them asking for “the establishment of a meaningful black studies program,” which had been in the works for some time. Within two weeks, the faculty voted to establish the Department of Afro-American Studies. Soon after, between 1972 and 1975, the percentage of African-American students at Harvard had more than doubled. Faculty of color expanded beyond a mere handful to a vital presence. In just the past two years, we’ve seen the first black dean of Harvard College, the first black House masters, and soon the first official trip to Africa by a sitting Harvard president. And the new freshman class, the Class of 2013, is the most diverse in our history with the highest percentage of African-American students, now up to 10 percent.

Students changed Harvard, even while Harvard changed them. Skip Griffin, president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Association of African and Afro-American Students in 1969, had grown up watching his father, who led the fight to integrate the schools in Virginia’s Prince Edward County. He was a child of the Civil Rights movement. And when he led the black student protest at University Hall — “office hours,” the Crimson called it — he called his father for advice. Griffin doesn’t remember putting his shoes on President Pusey’s desk, as some later said. But “I grew up,” he later recalled, “believing that students could create change.” And they did. The rally gave students “a sense of agency,” remembers law professor Lani Guinier, then at Radcliffe — “a sense of our own power to make a difference.”

From student protest came not just a greater black presence at Harvard, but a new commitment to public service. New questions arose — in education, medicine, urban planning, public health — extending the University’s interest in inner cities and their problems. And I am proud to say that that legacy is stronger than ever. In last year’s graduating class, fully 41 percent of black seniors entering the job market went into a public service field.

Such commitment is a deep and long-enduring current in American life. And despite the eddies and undertows of an imperfect past, universities remain a confluence of free thought and transformation unmatched in the modern world. Harvard remains an extraordinary institution, partly because of you — because of how you have shaped Harvard even as it has shaped you. President Obama has challenged us to “take up in our own lives the work of perfecting our union,” and, I would add, to keep opening the doors of opportunity.

I have made accountability a theme of my presidency. I have made myself accountable, to both the cherished traditions we inherit and to the possibilities we create. And I want to say here today that I am accountable to all of you — to further develop a Harvard where, in the words of alumnus Lee Daniels, our differences are “not a boundary … but a foundation” for understanding. Now is the time.

And if I may, I would like to end on a personal note. No matter what party or political persuasion we are, I think each of us, as Americans, experienced a moment during last November’s election when we realized the world had changed. That moment for me came on election night, just before 10 o’clock, when the tallies were mounting, when the state results for Virginia were finally in. I grew up in a segregated Virginia in the home county of Senator Harry Byrd, who urged that after Brown v. Board, Virginia close its public schools rather than integrate them. I grew up in a Virginia where a combination of the poll tax and patterns of intimidation meant that few blacks even voted. I cannot fully describe to you the feeling I had last fall when I saw on the map the state of Virginia go “blue.” Some called it “the moment we knew,” that Obama had won the election; for me, as for countless others, it was the moment I knew that the world of my past was irrevocably changed. And I felt so blessed to be alive to see that change.

We may not yet have a perfect union, but with your commitment, our commitment and all our work together, we will keep moving toward it. In the meantime, a perfect reunion seems well within our grasp. Thank you all.

– Drew Gilpin Faust