Daytona Beach, Fla. — During the 2011 commencement address, civil rights activist and political leader Rev. Al Sharpton urged Bethune-Cookman University (B-CU) students to make the most of their degree, continue support of historically black colleges and seek healing and reconciliation rather than revenge in times of conflict.
Sharpton, founder and president of the National Action Network, a not-for-profit civil rights organization based in Harlem, N.Y., and a former presidential candidate, also received an honorary Doctorate of Divinity degree. The ceremony was an emotional moment for Sharpton, as he received his degree before his father, Al Sharpton Sr., who was seated in the audience among the thousands in attendance.
A product of a single-parent household, Sharpton recalled graduating from high school 40 years ago, and resenting his father’s absence at his graduation. However, he credits his efforts to reconcile with his father as the reason he is now able to rekindle that lost moment four decades later. He used that example as a teachable moment for the graduates.
“If I had focused on revenge, [my dad] would not have shared this moment with me,” Rev. Sharpton said.
Sharpton urged students to use their degrees as a launching pad toward achievement, and reminded them that failure is not an option, regardless of any obstacles and hindrances they encounter.
“No matter what you face, you have the grounding and foundation for excellence,” he said. “You are not responsible for all that happens to you in your life, but you are responsible for what you do with what happens to you in your life. It doesn’t matter in life who’s on your side if you’re not on your own side.”
Noting that many Historically Black Colleges and Universities such as B-CU are facing severe financial problems and budget cutbacks, and that some critics even question whether they are still necessary, Sharpton said the institutions still play an important role and continue to open doors for people in the Black community.
“We have a Black President, a Black Attorney General, 40 Black members of Congress – we’ve got more working for us than those who preceded us,” he said. “But most are doing less with what we’ve got. We still have a long way to go. We are still fighting violence and bigotry. We have come a long way, but we haven’t gotten there yet.”
“They can slash the budget, but they can’t slash hopes and dreams,” Rev. Sharpton added. “Education is the civil right of the 21st Century.”
He also encouraged the students to face challenges in the spirit of the institution’s founder.
“I am honored by what Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune meant to our history,” he said. “When Black people were still in the back of the bus, she built an institution. We need to be re-awakened to the pursuit of excellence she taught.” He added: “Blackness has never been about how low you can go, or how bad you can be. Blackness is about the fact that no matter how far we were pushed down, we found a way to get up anyhow.”
The 2011 graduating class – 564, up from 519 last year – is the largest in B-CU history.
Rev. Sharpton’s presence helped make the ceremony special, said B-CU President Trudie Kibbe Reed.
“It is our great honor to welcome Rev. Sharpton back to Bethune-Cookman University as our commencement speaker,” she said. “He has demonstrated excellence in leadership, education and service in his career that makes him a tremendous role model for our students.”
The University also gave Rev. Sharpton a special plaque from the Black Males In Higher Education Think Tank commemorating the First National Summit of the Black Males in Higher Education Think Tank, hosted by B-CU on March 22. Sharpton commended President Reed on her efforts to highlight Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune’s legacy at the university through her innovation and groundbreaking initiatives.
“Dr. Reed is the most visionary president I know,” he said. “She has honored us with her faithfulness and diligence. For me as a civil rights activist to be honored here is awe-inspiring.”