December 17‚ 2001 Commencement Speech

Georgia (Dec 17, 2001) —  This graduating class is the personification of an age-old adage that has been passed down from generation to generation. Through hard work, dedication, and faith, all things are possible. 

These are the best of times and the worst of times. At this moment thousands of brave young men and women are putting their lives in harm's way to protect America's freedom and America's principles. Those of us stateside should give our prayers, our blessings and our thanksgiving to this great nation. As we look back on the tragic events of September 11th and consider the destruction and the death wrought by murderous terrorists, it's hard to imagine what, if any good could be generated from that terrible event. But God has His will and His ways. And out of the death, fire and destruction in New York, in Washington and in the rural fields of Pennsylvania, positive and meaningful lessons are presented to all of us.

America has awakened to a new and important realization. First, our country is more united than ever before. If you and I had been riding on one of those four fated airliners, it would not matter if we had been riding in First Class or Coach. It would have been of no consequence if you or I had voted Democrat or Republican. It did not matter whether you lived in the suburbs or the inner city. It did not matter whether you had a PhD or no D. Those demented terrorists were intent on destroying America and American lives. But they drastically underestimated the will of the American people. For today we stand united: Black, White, Hispanic -- Americans of all races, creeds and colors. We stand united because we know that yes, we are one nation. One nation, under God, indivisible and dedicated to truth and justice for all.

Here in Georgia, we spent the last ten years arguing over the design of our state flag. Well, those terrorists learned that Americans of all colors, all creeds are now rallying around one flag. A flag everyone can be proud of. And that flag is the flag of the United States of America. We are all Americans.

If you ever see a turtle sitting on top of a fence post, you know he didn't get there by himself. Graduates should be appreciative of the family members who, when your old car gave out, loaned you theirs to get way out to Kennesaw State. Graduates should be proud and thankful of family members who, when you just couldn't find any other babysitter, took little Johnny just one more time. Graduates should be proud that they have family members, faculty members, neighbors and friends who when others lost faith in you, kept believing in you and encouraging you to pursue your goal of earning a college degree.

Yes, this Graduation Day is about celebrating your accomplishments. But it's also about recognizing your responsibilities. The Good Book teaches that "to whom much is given; much is required." The true value of an education is not that you have it, but that you seek and find opportunities to share your education with others.

My late father remains, to this day, the smartest man I ever met. But he never saw the inside of a college. He never graduated from a high school. In fact, he only had three years of formal education. This man, who meant so much to me and was so brilliant, never learned to read or write. But as I went off to college in 1971, he told me "Son, before you go off to college, let me tell you something. An education will only make you a bigger what you are before you get it. Son, if you are a fool before you go to college . . ." But he also told me something else, "Make the world a better place. As you move up, reach back. As you gain, give. As you possess, share."

Isn't it interesting how the toys you give your own children at Christmas will bring a little more joy into your household because you also gave toys to the less fortunate? Isn't it interesting that your Thanksgiving dinner tastes better when you share your bounty with people who are less fortunate?

And as we move forward in the 21st Century, you will engage a dynamic and ever changing world. The America you now inherit is much different than the one we were born into. The most important difference is that we now live in a much more diverse society. You will work in a much more diverse workplace. The student body at Kennesaw State University represents people from nations across the globe. This is the shape of things to come.

If you are going to manage in the 21st Century, you will manage a workforce that will be very diverse. It will be 50 percent female. It will be Hispanic. It will be Japanese. It will be black and white and red. When I first began to hear and read about diversity some 20 years ago, I thought it was little more than left-wing political ideology. But it was more significant than that; if you want high-tech employees with high-tech knowledge and high-tech skills you will have to hire some of them from India. If you want professors to teach mathematics and algebra, some must be hired from Japan. So it's not about us holding hands singing Cumbayah. It's about profit and productivity; it's about America continuing to be the strongest nation in the world.

I leave you with a personal story about comfort zones. In 1986 I was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives from Clarke County. That election was historic because I became the first African-American to represent Athens in the General Assembly since Reconstruction. The last African-American who sat in my seat from Athens had been a former slave. But there is a more important message in that election. I first ran in 1982 and was defeated. I ran again in 1984 and was defeated again. And at that point I figured that the people of Athens were trying to tell me something. Well folks, I had to sit down and say, "Why did I lose these elections?" And it became clear to me very quickly. The district I was running in was 66 percent white. But I only campaigned on the black side of town. I asked only black people to vote for me.

Finally, after two defeats and $30,000 worth of campaign debt, I had to make a decision. I submit to you that it is a decision that you will also have to make. What was more important in my life - my dream, my hope, my desire to hold public office in Georgia -- or my fears, my biases, my prejudices? I decided it was time to go across the proverbial railroad tracks, to seek votes wherever they may be and to ask everybody for their support and help.

And on the first day out my sister and I went into an all-white, high-income neighborhood. First house I went to, I knocked on the door and an elderly, well-dressed, intelligent-looking white lady came to the door. My sister handed her my brochure. The lady looked at it, read it, looked at me and said, "You all are wasting your time." She said, "I'll never vote for one of them. They lie, they cheat and they steal. And there's nothing you can ever say to get me to vote for one of those people."

My heart was literally broken. I turned to walk away, but my sister stopped. "Ma'am?" she said. "Haven't you ever heard of the civil rights movement? Don't you know that you can't judge political candidates by the color of their skin?" The lady took the brochure and read it again. She said, "Honey, I don't care what color he is. I'll never vote for a damn -- lawyer." True story.

There are two lessons here. First, some of us have more to overcome than others do. But secondly, and more importantly, the good Lord has created this world so that if you really want to find success you must leave your comfort zone. If you want to be successful in business, in life, in education and politics, you will have to deal with people who may not look like you or talk like you or think like you. That, my friends is the true value of a liberal arts education.

This little incident changed the course of my life. There were some folks who said, "Michael Thurmond can never get elected statewide in Georgia." I was confused by that, and they said, ""Georgia's in the heart of the old South. Don't you know three out of every four voters are white? You can never win." But I knew Georgia was a much better place than some folks gave it credit for. We campaigned statewide; the night of the election we carried 129 different Georgia counties. And just to let you know how much progress we made, on the night of the Democratic Primary I finished first in Forsyth County.

So join with me in what I call my bold new vision for Georgia. And it's simply this: that one day very soon we'll live in a state not separated by North Georgia and South Georgia, not separated by Black Georgia and White Georgia, not separated by rich or poor. A state that's smart enough that when it comes to education of my daughter and your children education will not allow itself to be separated even between Republicans and Democrats. I believe that if we continue to work together and if every now and then we stop and say a common prayer together, we will be one great Georgia, dedicated to one great people! 


A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit