Final Exercises 1992: Thomas Speech

The Honorable John Charles Thomas
Commencement Address, May 17, 1992
University of Virginia

To President Casteen, to the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

It is my great honor and privilege to be with you today. This is a moment of many emotions. I know first hand because twenty short years ago, as you heard, I sat for the first time on this historic Lawn to take my undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia. I remember the joy of having achieved at least part of what I had set out to achieve. And I remember the wonder of what might lie ahead.

Those who are privileged to study at this University soon realize that we are here but a short time and that before too long we must begin to put to good use that which we have learned. And so it is that we gather today with those who have loved you and supported you all along the way to take note of the very significant fact that whatever your discipline, whatever your course of study, whatever your degree, it is time to move ahead.

Because of the special joy in this moment, we want very much to deliver to you a message that is filled with the traditional, if not clichéd phrases of commencements of old. We want to say to you "may the wind be at your back." We want to tell you "may your feet never stumble." We want to tell you that "life is yours for the picking." We want to tell you that "everything is all right." But we cannot.

I would be unfaithful to our shared Jeffersonian tradition if I did not "follow truth wherever it may lead"; if I did not tell you what I know of the mountains that lie ahead. As you let go of this moment in time and stride ahead to seize the next, I have to tell you that there will always be mountains.

In our nation today, and yes, in the world, there are mountains of despair. The landscape is littered about with the remnants of broken families, broken by a thing called the new morality, broken by the pressures of finances, broken by hopelessness.

Our children come and go anytime of the day and night and make babies along the way. We are told that our children can’t read, that they have no sense of geography, no idea of current events, no skills in mathematics, no commitment to the hard sciences, no sense of self-worth.

I tell you, wherever you go, there will always be mountains.

Our people look for jobs that long ago were taken over by computers and robots. Factories are closing. The giants of American business are laying off workers. People who have never before been without a job stand side-by-side with people who have never had a job — all pleading for help.

I tell you, no matter how much you have, there will always be mountains.

Drugs flow into our communities, whether they are privileged communities or underprivileged — stupefying, nullifying, vaporizing our minds and resources.

The simplest dispute is punctuated by the rat-tat-tat of gunfire. The youngest children settle schoolyard arguments with bullets.

I tell you, whether you are black or white or brown or yellow, whatever color you are, there will always be mountains.

Simmering just below the surface of racial tolerance, if not fitful of racial harmony, in America is an unstable, explosive mix of racial fear and animosity. Justice seems to depend more on the color of the accused, the color of the victims, and the color of the jury than it does upon who did right and who did wrong and who deserves to be punished.

There is talk that we as a nation have lost our discipline, our morality, our will, our way. But despite all that’s going on, despite all our concerns, despite all our fears, despite all that we see, I tell you that my message today is not a message of despair, it is a message of hope.

For you see, our nation is at a defining moment in its history. It cannot return to the ways of the past. It cannot continue with the ways of the present. This nation must become "a more perfect union" and you, all of you we honor here today, hold the key to what we shall be.

This is a message of hope because you are part of a plan that Jefferson himself had the foresight to put into place for such a time as this. Now some of you, cynical after your tour of duty through the rigorous confines of academia here, may be saying to yourself that "Well, that speaker, he’s telling me about a plan but there is no plan. He’s just talking things that commencement speakers always talk." But if you are thinking that way, I assure you that you are mistaken.

If you doubt what I am saying about your being part of a plan then you do not yet fully appreciate that by studying at this University, by taking a degree at this University, you have taken upon yourself a very special role in the well-being of America.

I do not mean to suggest that the nation does not need the effort of all its citizens. But I tell you that if anyone is meant to be in the vanguard of hope for America, it is those who have walked this Lawn; those who have studied at this University.

A brief excursion into the pages of history will help you understand what I mean. For you see, Thomas Jefferson was the leading architect of the American Revolution. He wrote the famous words in the Declaration of Independence, which I am bound to modify a bit today, but he said "all are created equal." He helped form a nation out of a troubled, ragtag, beleaguered group of quasi-nation states. Some say that while Washington fought for the Revolution, Jefferson thought for the Revolution.

Later in life, after he saw the union come into being, he contemplated what he could do best to serve the nation. This University, the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, was his answer.

I tell you, you are part of a plan.

Jefferson wrote in 1820 that "Our University is the last of my mortal cares and the last service I can render to my country." He wrote in other places that he hoped that students from this University would become the bulwarks of virtue, morality, wisdom, not just for the new nation, but for this part of the world.

You see, I mean it when I tell you that I know with special certainty that you are not just another graduating class from just another university. You are part and parcel of a plan, centuries in the making, to save our nation in times of urgent need.

As I speak, I want to make one thing clear: Because I sat on this lawn as a graduate student myself, I know that graduate students sometimes have the attitude, "I’ve had my commencement already. This is not my commencement." But I want you to know I’m talking to you.

Whether you are in medicine, law, MBA, whatever your graduate degree, I tell you that just as Jefferson was part of the formation of America all of you here must be part of the reformation of America. You must reform decaying cities. Reform the health care delivery system. Reform the teaching of science. Reform the importance of education in our country. Whatever your specialty is, you have a role to play in reforming America.

This is a message of hope because, as you sit here today, architects, builders, athletes, teachers, scientists, philosophers, doctors, lawyers, business men and women — as you sit here today, you have within you the raw stuff of what it takes to grab this nation by the scruff of its neck and yank it back from the edge of self-destruction.

Make no mistake about it, the forces that would rend this nation asunder are loose in the streets. And it will take all that is within you to reform it. But reform it you must.

The needs of this nation are at this moment so great that we can no longer afford for those who are blessed with the education you have simply to wring your hands and say, "Somehow, somehow, we have to get out of this mess." We need you, in the best Jeffersonian tradition, to start telling people "how." Not "somehow," but "how."

"Somehow" is all too often the watchword of those who would criticize yet fail to offer solutions. "How" is usually the word used by those who think and analyze and resolve matters and help us set courses to move forward. You have it within you to calm the nation’s turmoil, to restore its values, to reinstall its morality, to make it more perfect.

Now some of you may be thinking that I ask too much of you, that the problems in America in the 1990s are intractable, that nobody can take them on and wrestle them to the ground. But I don’t recommend that you try to solve everything at once, nor do I think that Jefferson had that idea in mind when he established this University.

What I want you to do is to deal with wrong whenever and wherever you see it on an individual basis. Some of you may ask,"Why me? This is not my problem. These are the problems of our elected leaders." My short answer to you is I do not believe that government can solve our problems; I think even that government is part of the problem.

But I am certain of this, that with each of you acting with fairness, honor, and determination in your own sphere, and I in mine and others in theirs, that we can collectively reform America. You see, I was taught at my grandmother’s knee that "little drops of water and little grains of sand, make the mighty ocean and the pleasant land."

I tell you, yes, you can; right where you are, yes, you can.

The most profound changes in America will come from goodwill and good works of people like you operating one by one on every street corner, in every alley, on every block, in every office building, in every way you can, in America. What I am saying to you is that no matter where you find yourself, if you see injustice or unfairness, whether in the laboratory, the office, the school, the courts, the country club, the Congress — speak out and say that it is wrong.

If you see hunger, bring food — not tomorrow, bring food right then. If you see hopelessness, bring hope — not tomorrow, right then. If you see racism, or sexism, or any kind of —ism, stop where you are and say I WILL NOT TOLERATE THIS.

There is a vast reservoir of good in America. Our citizens seek to do what is right. I believe that they yearn to be good. And sometimes the only thing that is needed is for one person out of thousands to say what is right, and others will respond.

Given what we now see across America, I don’t think it would be too much to say that we are in the midst of a war in America for what is right, for what is just. But don’t think that I am simply referring to the streets of any particular city in America. I am not. I am talking about a war for what is right on Wall Street, on Main Street, on Broad Street, in our souls.

Because you have taken a degree from this University, you were long ago enlisted as an officer in this war. We need your best thoughts, your deepest understanding, your most brilliant advice.

In my opinion, as things now stand, our nation does thoughtless things. We spend billions of dollars developing labor-saving devices such as computers and robots, but we take no steps to prepare for the people who will surely lose their jobs once their labor is no longer needed. Somebody here with careful thought and analysis could have fixed a problem like that, could have prepared for it.

Somebody here may see the wisdom in telling the nation that it may be time to change the standard work week from 40 hours to 30 to 35 hours, thus to share the blessings of labor-saving devices and put people back to work. Forty hours did not come from heaven. It was made by people right here on earth. It can change.

Somebody here may be the one to tell the nation that if some of our laborers are idle, we can put them to work repairing the cracks in the old tunnels under great cities and fixing bridges and highways, in picking up paper, in doing something to make the nation better while they return to work. Somebody here may have the wisdom to look at overcrowded jails and empty high security military bases and wonder why we are spending more money for jails.

Somebody may wonder why it is that a match cannot be made between lonely senior citizens who are filled with knowledge and love and unwanted, warehoused infants lined up on hospital corridors starving for the human touch.

Somebody here may have started to understand, when they think about it, that mountains can be moved.

I know mountains can be moved. I have seen evidence of it and you have too. For you see, this very Lawn was a mountain until it met Jefferson’s will and was leveled.

I know mountains can be moved because the power of Great Britain in India seemed like a mountain until it met the will of Ghandi and retreated.

I know mountains can be moved because a moon landing seemed like a mountain until it met with the will of Kennedy and Johnson and was achieved.

I know mountains can be moved because institutionalized, legalized racism in America seemed like a mountain until it met the will of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and had to roll back some.

The will of the people brought down the Berlin Wall.

The will of the people crushed communism in the Soviet Union.

I say to you today that you have a mission. It was arranged long ago and set in motion for such a time as this. Jefferson intended for you to help America in times of need. You! He intended for you to help America times of need.

We know that you are able because you would not have been able to come here and you would not be here today if you were not able. We know that you are able.

We know that you are ready because if there is one thing our great University can do it is that it can teach our students to be prepared for what will face them. We know that you are ready.

But the question, the question, the question is, are you willing?! Do you have the will? The answer is in your hands.

Do you have the will to help restore the family structure in America and take the latchkey out of the hands of babies?

Do you have the will to battle against drug use and save our nation from purchasing its own destruction?

Do you have the will?

Do you have the will to feed the hungry, comfort the suffering, make new jobs out of the ashes of the old?

Do you have the will?

Do you have the will to tell all who will listen that racial strife in America is nothing more than a time bomb that will rend the nation apart? Will you commit to helping heal racial wounds anywhere you find them?

I believe that you have the will. I believe that it is not coincidence that you have reached this moment of transition in your life just as America faces a moment of definition for itself. I believe that you are here for a reason. That you are part of a plan. And so I tell you in closing as I told you at the start, there will always be mountains. But it is up to you whether the mountains you encounter will be obstacles or whether they will become mere stepping stones to new horizons. Use your will, have faith, keep the commitments.

God bless you! Thank you.