Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Extraordinary People in May

Let me introduce you to John Dittmer, one of the extraordinary people in May!
by Charlie Leck

Tra la! It’s May!
The lusty month of May!
That lovely month
when everyone goes blissfully astray.

That shocking time of year
when tons of wicked little thoughts
merrily appear!

It’s mad! It’s gay!
A libelous display!

Somewhere in those lyrics there should be something about the commencement speakers on display… in May… in May!

Ah, the commencement season!
Can’t you hear Julie Andrews gaily singing those giddy words from Camelot. Geez, I was a Learner and Lowe fan and loved their stuff. I wonder if either of those guys spoke at any college or university commencement ceremonies.

It’s that time of year when the colleges roll out the distinguished people to address their departing students, imploring their guests speakers to make a pitch for loyalty and annual fund gifts to the alma maters from these listening students.

If you watch who is speaking where, you will of course see the big guns and the famous people.

The President took a surprising and successful direction in this address to the graduates of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. On the Huffington Post you can find both the full text of speech or a full video of it.

Michelle Obama addressed the first graduating a class in the history of Merced University, California’s latest school of higher education. The students there set out to make Mrs. Obama the school’s first commencement speaker and laid out an energetic plan to convince her to choose them over hundreds of other invitations. [Here’s an LA Times story about their inventiveness.] She was impressed and she went and spoke sensibly to them [read her address here or see a video of the address here].

The First Lady’s was a barn-burner of a speech. She laid it on the line to those Merced students and told them they were now in debt – not just financial debt but in debt to everyone who had worked so hard to get them where they were. Now, it is pay-back time.
“Think of the people who sacrificed for you… be the realization of our dreams…. we believe in you… we are looking to you for some sign of hope… remember that you are blessed…. in exchange for those blessings you must give something back… you must reach back and pull someone up… bend down and let someone else stand on your shoulders so that they can see a brighter future… so, graduates, when times get tough… think of those people who paved the way for you… hold on to the hope that brought you here today… I know a little something about the power of hope… my husband knows a little something about the power of hope… you are the hope of Merced and of this nation.. we believe in you!”

Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, delivered separate commencement addresses to New York University.

Who’s speaking where?
I found it an interesting exercise to track who was speaking at what University and what they were saying. If you try hard enough, you can find a full text of each of these speeches or, in many cases, a video presentation of them.

  • Secretary of State, Eric Holder, is addressing Columbia graduates.

  • Rahm Emmanuel, the President’s Chief Aide, spoke at George Washington University.

  • Hustice Anthony Kennedy spoke at Stanford.

  • Clarence Otis and Anne Garrels spoke at Williams College – Otis is one that would be worth looking into.

  • Gwen Ifel, the journalist, spoke at Howard University.

  • Vernon Jordan, civil rights activist and leader, was at the University of the District of Columbia.

  • Barney Frank (House of Representatives) and Susan Zininsky (CBS News), Lonnie Bunch , historian, and John Pedergast (the Enough Project) will all speak at various commencements at American University.

  • MIT will have the Governor of its state, Deval Patrick, addressing graduates.

  • Gene Davis (actor) and Fareed Zakaria (Middle East policy expert) will address the graduates of Bates College.

  • Various colleges at UCLA will have Arianna Huffington (journalist/blogger), Oliver Stone (Hollywood writer/director) and James Franco (actor and UCLA alum) speaking to appropriate schools.

  • The former President of Mexico, Vincente Fox, is delivering the address at Emory University.

  • Tom Brokaw (broadcast journalist) spoke at Fordham University.

Other speakers around the country
The Shark, a clever blog from CAL Law, listed some of the sexier speakers around the country in a blog this spring.

What’s the point?
Well, I could go on and on, listing hundreds of speakers and colleges for you. What’s the point?
I’ll tell you! Among the lists, if you search diligently, you’ll find some gems to whom you can give special attention. Colin Powell at Franklin and Marshall? Yup, I’ll look into that one. He was the member of the last presidential administration who was the most embarrassed by the policies of George W. Bush and I keep track of what he’s saying, looking for the day when he’s going to really let it all out.

But, here’s my prize for this year!
John Dittmer, award winning historian and author of Local People (The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi) and also a new book, The Good Doctors, spoke on Sunday to the 2009 graduating class at DePauw University in Indiana. [You can get an audio of the address by clicking here.]

"It may seem like cold comfort right now, but I believe that coming of age in an era of adversity has provided you with an education you could not get in the classroom… I also believe that we are at a unique time and place in our history, where we have the ability and the will to right many wrongs."

Dittmer nailed a theme that columnist Tom Friedman is hitting hard these days. This is a time to take advantage of the global problem with the economy. It’s a time to look at a new way of living and a new way of approaching problems. It’s time to see ourselves as totally interconnected as a global people who must cooperate and work together in order to survive in a brand new world that is coming.

It was more than 10 years ago that I read Dittmer’s work on the Mississippi civil rights struggle. It was an extraordinary account of the immensity of the problems in Mississippi. It won one of the most prestigious book awards in existence, the Bancroft Prize. It also won the Lillian Smith Book Award. In his commencement address he referred back to Mississippi.

"Nowhere was the black freedom movement more dramatic and dangerous than in Mississippi, the state I know best, where thousands of local people -- maids, sharecroppers, small business owners -- risked their livelihoods and their lives in the struggle for equality."

Local People
Dittmer’s book is not a story about the civil rights workers who went to Mississippi in the 60s. Rather, it is a story of the black people who lived there and fought and struggled for some semblance of civil rights in a “closed society” that barely recognized them as human. And, one must remember, Mississippi’s white population was set on keep their “colored people” out of the power loop. Mississippi was a state of “white supremacy.” Dittmer called it “the last vestige of a dead and despairing civilization.”

The NY Times said that Dittmer’s book gives "a gripping portrait of largely forgotten civil rights workers who forged racial change in the face of violence and murder,…"

The University of Illinois Press summarized the book this way:

Local People tells the whole grim story in depth for the first time, from the unsuccessful attempts of black World War II veterans to register to vote to the seating of a civil rights-oriented Mississippi delegation at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Particularly dramatic - and heartrending - is Dittmer's account of the tumultuous decade of the sixties: the freedom rides of 1961, which resulted in the imprisonment at Parchman of dozens of participants; the violent reactions to protests in McComb and Jackson and to vote[r] registration drives in Greenwood and other cities; the riot in Oxford when James Meredith enrolled at Ole Miss; the cowardly murder of longtime leader Medger Evers; and the brutal Klan lynchings of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman during the Freedom Summer of 1964.”

I’ll just tell you this. Dittmer helped me understand, better than anything else I read, the Mississippi social and political structure from the black person’s point of view.

Famous civil rights worker and Georgia Congressman, Julian Bond, called Local People “the definitive analytical history of the black freedom movement in Mississippi… an exciting and dramatic story of unknown heroes persevering over decades of quiet struggle against rampant terror, and the villains who resisted them with lynch mob justice and sophisticated political backstabbling.”

Seeing that Dittmer was the speaker at this year’s DePauw University commencement brought the book back to mind and sent me scurrying to my book shelves to find it again. My copy is filled with notes and comments. It was great fun to go back and reread what I said about the book then.

Dittmer, a native of Mississippi, who taught for a time at Tougaloo College in his native state, has been a professor of history at DePauw University and is now a Professor Emeritus. He received his doctoral degree from Indiana University and also formerly taught at Brown University and M.I.T..

It addition to the awards mentioned above, Local People also won an award from the Mississippi Historical Society (the McLemore Prize) and also won the Herbert G. Gutman Prize, and the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights Outstanding Book Prize.

You can find very inexpensive copies of the book on sale at ABE (American Book Exchange) – my favorite place to buy books.

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