Norman Francis: 2019 Laetare Address

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President Jenkins, faculty, families, friends, and of course the class of 2019. Congratulations to you. Now I have a speech here and I knew it was a good speech because all of my friends here and my honorary degree recipients all used it.

So I was watching the clock and said, well, they told me I had three minutes. Well, I can’t say my name in three minutes. But I’m so happy at least to be graduating in 2019 with two honorary degrees from Notre Dame.

Now, you have to understand how important that is. You see, my mother and father did not graduate from high school. Now, faculty members, I want to congratulate you untiringly for what you’ve done for this class. And I say that because I had the honor of saying to the faculty members, in kind words, that though my mother and father did not graduate from high school, they were two of the smartest people I knew. And that included the faculty of my institution. They didn’t fire me. They let me stay 47 years. And I want to congratulate all of my colleagues and particularly for our guest speaker.

I spent 34 years on Plessy v. Ferguson. I don’t know if there are too many people in here who know what Plessy v. Ferguson was. I’m saying this to you because I have such gratitude to the University of Notre Dame for choosing me for the Laetare Medal. And I’m sorry that my mother and father are not here today, and my wife of 60 years, and I say this to you because I was never intended to be standing at this podium. But I am here. You know, I said a prayer the other day and I said, God, I’ve done a lot of, I hope, good things, but I’m not sure what you want me to do next. I said, you’re being a little slow in responding. But I am here.

Let me say to you, I’m speaking not for myself. I’m speaking for a large number of people who never got the opportunity to speak at a podium like this at a great university. And I say this to you because I think — maybe I should say, I know — that America has lost in that era, in Plessy v. Ferguson, some of the greatest Americans to be, but who never got the chance to do it. So I’m not speaking for myself personally. I’m speaking for the people who never got the chance. And when I decided to make some notes, I decided to choose maybe a couple of things, but I’m going to choose only one this morning, because I know you’re sitting there saying, “Oh, God, when is he ever going to stop talking?” Well, 47 years taught me a little bit about being a president and staying too long.

The issue today in America is many-fold. And the one that I think is so important that was mentioned today by our valedictorian speaker is that poverty is growing like wildfire in America today. I don’t think we all appreciate how and why poverty is, across the board. What I call the quality-of-life issues. There is no equality in the quality-of-life issue. You just think of any one of them, from education to health to housing to employment. It is not equal and it’s far from being equitable.

So I’m trying to put my little piece in. And let me say before I go much further, I have total faith in my country. I have total faith in myself and I have total faith that all of us are going to come together, but apparently not immediately. Apparently. And I don’t think there’s anyone in here today who believes that the playing field is equal.

And part of that was Plessy v. Ferguson. It was like a volcano, and the aftershocks are still around. Why I’m so happy to be here and to have heard the beauty of the discussions here in the speeches is that you are the ones. You are the ones that are going to make this country even better than it is. And it’s not in the future. The future is now.

There’s an old saying, a Chinese proverb, that says, “Too late to dig a well, when the house is on fire.” So you are going to have to do a lot more than has been done by some of us. And we were taught to try to do it, but we haven’t done that yet.

Education is the roadway out of poverty. No way you turn it upside down if you’re not educated in a country like America. And so the question is, what are we going to do to make sure that education fulfills what God intended to each one of you? Each one of you is going to be expected to be a leader. I don’t care where you are, whether you’re in a lodge somewhere, or one of the fraternities. You are going to have to be leaders. You can’t sit around and just talk. You’ve got to do something. And why I’m happy to be here: I wanted to speak, in part, to plead with you to make the distribution of education from elementary school to where you are equitable.

The road is in education and it’s going to have to be distributed equitably. Equitably. You’ve heard my introduction and, yes, I chair the commission to bring up Louisiana and a part of Mississippi after Katrina. The governor asked me to chair that. I had lost my house. I was about to lose the university. My God, I don’t know what I’m going to be doing. My wife had her own ideas about that and she probably was right, but I thought she was wrong. And I stand here today to you to apologize to her in front of you, to say I should have given her much more attention than I did. But I was fighting with my colleagues to be equitable in distributing the resources we have.

I guess it is a senator from Louisiana — I don’t know if you know anything about Louisiana and politics and so forth; it’s kind of complicated — but it comes down to is there going to be the leadership that’s going to distribute it equitably. But this senator stood up and said, “Well, I’m so happy we have somebody who’s going to distribute the money equally.” And I said, “I apologize, but that’s not the way we’re going to do it.” “Oh, I thought you believed in equal opportunity, clear distribution.” I believe in that, but I believe in, ethically, that if you had a 50 percent loss and we get money for repair, we gave you 50 percent of the money, and that gets you back where you hope to be. But if I distributed it with the committee equally, you’re going to be in the same boat you were before Katrina. So I’m here to plead with you that all of us are going to have to come together, I said it earlier, as partners, to be able to make what we want this country to be. And I’m willing to say it ain’t, but it should be. And there are a lot of people who are sick and tired of being sick and tired, and the only way we’re going to do it is come together as people.

Let me tell you a story, and then I’m going to sit down. Somebody said, well, how did you develop your persona? Well, not much different than most other people. I was 4 years old, living in a small black neighborhood in a small town called Lafayette, Louisiana. And a good friend in that little neighborhood, the only one who was a young Caucasian man, played, you know, softball, all kinds of things. And one day, about five of the men in the neighborhood was asked by me, what are they doing with all this raw lumber being placed in the side yard? He said, well, son, your best friend, only friend there who was Caucasian, is building a coffin for this young lady who was married to this fine young man. They have no money, so they want to build a coffin. I didn’t fully understand it then. I understand that now. And if we could come together with that thought in mind and cross lines, we are in a different era then we were in the ’40s and ’50s.

So today I’m asking you. I’m not asking you all to be teachers, but you are going to be a teacher wherever you are, and you’re going to have to be committed to that. We’re not yet. And the one thing that helped me understand it more, I happened to be under President Reagan’s — I’ll call it Commission on Excellence in Education. But what it really came out to be was a Nation at Risk. And I think we heard that this morning. We are at risk, but we don’t have to be at risk. So I ask you, do something about it. Just don’t talk about it as we have.

I’m asking you the question. If it’s not you, I ask you who? If it’s not now, I ask you, when? And I ask you with the greatest hope in mind and the great spirit in mind, do something about education. Hire great teachers, believe that they can learn. Help them as they go, and if anything else, get the best advisers from elementary school to high school, to college. There are a lot of young people at the college level who don’t know what they want to be. And somebody isn’t telling them frankly what it’ll take, as you have done, to be what you can be, should be, and God gave you the right to do.

Thank you. Congratulations to all of you. God bless you.