Veteran journalist rewrites speech after witnessing historic Commencement
Bill Moyers delivered an eloquent and introspective speech Sunday about racism, slavery, and the slow pace of change in America, providing students and their families at the School of Arts and Sciences Convocation with a powerful lesson in history, and striking a fitting grace note to President Obama’s momentous appearance earlier in the day at the Rutgers University Commencement.
Remarkably, Moyers’s Convocation address was an act of improvisation. The legendary journalist told the scarlet-clad, shivering audience at High Point Solutions Stadium that Obama’s Commencement address had touched him on a deeply personal level and prompted him to rewrite his planned remarks during the short break between Commencement and Convocation. The resulting speech hit close to home, with Moyers pointing out that Colonel Henry Rutgers, for whom Rutgers University is named, owned slaves, and that New Brunswick played a central role in the slave trade.
“You had a black president speak today, as nobly as any president ever spoke, on a spot where once upon a time, he might have been a slave,” Moyers said. “Those are the thoughts that went through my mind today. So I threw away my 30-minute speech and my 20-minute speech, and just wanted to tell you what was going through my mind.”
The School of Arts and Sciences is the liberal arts school at Rutgers University–New Brunswick and the largest and most comprehensive unit at the university. The school graduated 5,499 students in the Class of 2016. The Convocation takes place immediately after Commencement and provides SAS students the opportunity to walk across the stadium stage and shake hands with the deans while the giant video screens capture the moment for everyone to see.
That moment was very much on the minds of thousands of relatives who braved unseasonably cool weather, including penetrating winds and a sudden hail storm, to watch and cheer on their graduates.
“I’m freezing, but I don’t care!” declared Abbie Oyetunde, of Union, whose daughter,
Motolani, was graduating with a major in biological sciences and a minor in psychology. “This is our girl’s day and we are here to support her.”
John and Antonia Reo, of Fanwood, meanwhile, were a model of endurance and energy, as they stood in the stands, each ready to snap pictures of their son, Max, as he walked across stage.
“It has been a momentous day, a historic day, and we would not have missed it for the world,” Antonia said. “It was fabulous.”
The event comes as Rutgers celebrates its 250th anniversary. In his remarks to students, Arts and Sciences Executive Dean Peter March noted that the school is closely connected to that milestone.
“For it is the School of Arts and Sciences that carries on the tradition of liberal arts learning that began 250 years ago with that historic 1766 chartering of Queen’s College, the institution that would become Rutgers,” March said.
March noted afterward that Moyers’s speech provided an excellent example to students of how to think critically about deeply important and painful issues. “This is part of our mission,” March said. “We have to ask difficult questions so we can understand our history, and own it.”
Moyers has been a journalist for more than four decades, distinguishing himself first in newspapers, as publisher of Newsday, and subsequently in broadcast news, where he served for years at CBS and in public broadcasting at PBS.
But it was his service as a special assistant to President Lyndon Johnson that fueled much of his speech. He recalled, for example, being at Johnson’s side when he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“I remember thinking, on both occasions, that it has taken a hundred years since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation for another president to fulfill it,” Moyers said.
He then reflected on Obama’s address, in which the president told students that societal change comes slow.
“He was right,” Moyers said. “Change comes slowly. It doesn’t come easily. And it comes from the bottom up.
“Because in those one hundred years, there were martyrs, and lynching, and beatings. And little girls in white dresses torn to pieces by a bomb in their Sunday School. Change comes. . . from people who have put their lives and their convictions and their commitments on the line.
“And I was thinking that as the president spoke today.”
Click here to watch Bill Moyers give his Convocation Address.