Civil rights leader Julian Bond reflected on the legacy of race and slavery during his keynote Commencement address on the National Mall Sunday.
Bond, the chairman of the NAACP and a prominent activist of the civil rights movement, addressed graduates and families after being awarded an honorary doctor of public service degree from the University.
Hatchet Video: Commencement on the Mall
He emphasized that people should not take freedom for granted.
“I am the grandson of a slave,” Bond told the audience. “(He was) property, like a horse or a chair.”
As University Marshal Jill Kasle shielded him from the rain with an umbrella, Bond invoked the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who presented his “I have a dream” speech on the Mall 45 years ago. Bond noted the progress in religious, gender, sexual orientation and racial equality since those times, and encouraged graduates to build on these successes.
“Your job, your responsibility, is to make these protections more secure, to expand them for your generation and those who will follow you,” Bond said. “In doing so, you will make Dr. King’s legacy live.”
Bond also sympathized with current and former University presidents, Steven Knapp and Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, for their decision to take on the position.
“You live in a big house and you beg for money,” said Bond, whose father was a university president.
Bond said after the event that he wanted graduates to know that “whatever it is they do, they have to do something for others.”
James Hood, uncle of graduate and former Black Student Union President Charles Basden, said he was moved by the speech.
“When he said Martin Luther King Jr. has been dead longer than he had been alive, it really reached me,” Hood said.
Honorary degrees were also awarded to Trachtenberg and former Board of Trustees chairman Charles Manatt, who both spoke at Commencement last year in their former roles.
Trachtenberg, who stepped down as University president last year, was met with zealous cheers and applause from the crowd before accepting his degree. Knapp praised him for 19 years of lasting contributions to GW.
In his brief remarks, Trachtenberg exalted the work of his predecessor, former University President Lloyd Elliott and wished Knapp “success and satisfaction.”
Manatt was honored for his 45-year relationship with GW and briefly summarized his sentiments.
“This is not the time for a speech for me, I am told, but if it were I would stress two things,” Manatt said. “Number one: one person can make a difference, and number two: we are not born only for ourselves but for the whole world.”
After the ceremony, Trachtenberg praised this year’s Commencement – the first in about 20 years without him leading the ceremony.
“Everyone was very good-natured about the weather, which is not always the case,” he said. “I took it as a testimony that I brought them up right.”