It really is a pleasure and an honor to be here today, and I do not share that thought as some pro forma beginning for my remarks. I feel a great sense of pride in being invited to share this day with the young men and women in this room. And that I say that with a historic sense of seriousness. Why?
I’ll read you the exact words that explain:
“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …”
I’m sure everyone in this programs knows those words are enshrined in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. They lead off the Bill of Rights.
My professional training is in the law. I have spent most of my career practicing, writing, and enforcing the law. I understand the great importance of the Constitutional guarantees that the American people will have free speech and the right to a free press. There are times when both of those freedoms make our lives less comfortable and they are not always convenient, but they are keystones of the American Experiment — and we must treat them as such.
That is important to the members of the profession you all are seeking to join, but even more so to the citizenry you will serve with your labor. What you will have the opportunity to do in the field of journalism is to help your communities to keep pushing to make this a more perfect union.
Every time you turn on your computers to begin an assignment, keep that in mind. That is the ultimate mission statement that should drive every decision you make as a journalist — especially ones who do not look like the majority of people who will populate the newsrooms through which your work will be filtered.
But also remember with the great rights that you are given as members of the press also comes a set of responsibilities you must exemplify with equal vigilance.
First and foremost, bring no ideology to your work. Bring a magnifying glass and a flashlight, but do not bring an agenda. You must let events sit tall in the saddle — cracking the whip, wearing the spurs — and remember that you are along only for the ride.
Following that advice won’t always be easy … but it will always be essential.
Also, challenge yourself always to be dynamic thinkers. What you think today doesn’t necessarily have to be what you think tomorrow — and often shouldn’t be if you are learning and growing. Now, keep in mind I am not asking you to change your thoughts with the latest fad or direction of the wind. That is not what I am saying. Instead, I am asking you to challenge and hone your ideas and mind so that they continue to be strong and sharp.
And, please do not put yourself in a box. Many people have fought many a battle so that none of you have to feel like anything but an individual and a professional.
If you talk to most people about my career, they will marvel and linger over the fact that almost every time I won an election I was the first black man to do “X” or the first African-American to be elected to “Y.” And my elections to the Virginia Senate, Lieutenant Governor, and Governor broke barriers that reverberated not only around Virginia but made headlines around the world. Each time the voters trusted me to be the first to hold a particular office showed a changing course on America’s journey to racial equality.
But, I have never spent time thinking about myself as merely a racial cog.
I did not run to be a black state senator. I ran to be a member of the Senate of Virginia. I did not run to be a black lieutenant governor. I ran to be the lieutenant governor of my state. And I did not run to be the first black man elected governor of an American state. I ran to be the governor of Commonwealth of Virginia.
I ran to serve the whole of Virginia, not any one segment — and you all should see it as your duty to do the same.
Think globally and act globally. You have a duty to the entire population. Meet that duty daily.
And I want to end by saying something about you all and the generation you represent.
A lot of ink is being spilled about the so-called Millennial Generation.
During the current phase of my career, I am now serving as a professor of public policy at Virginia Commonwealth University in my hometown, Richmond. That has given me a great deal of experience with Millennials.
I often hear these words attached to your generation by its elders: “entitled” … “brazen” … “hurried.”
With my first person experience, I can tell you people who make such charges aren’t spending enough time with the Millennials they want to characterize so easily in a negative light.
What words do I think define this generation? I nominate: bold, searching, communitarian, tolerant.
I want you to think about those qualities, so I’ll say them again: bold, searching, communitarian, tolerant.
Those are the characteristics that could allow your generation to take command of this nation and to keep it great. They will allow you all to continue the American tradition of heralding new scientific accomplishments, continuing the march to greater equality, and serving as a beacon to the less fortunate.
I see a generation of people eager to prepare themselves for the challenges of leadership and service. Hold onto that.
Those are the very same qualities that fueled a generation that wrote a document declaring the daring set of rights and responsibilities enshrined in the Constitution and its accompanying Bill of Rights.
Use the right to free speech and the guarantee of a free press to make this a more perfect union and to ensure justice. Those are your rights and responsibilities as Americans and as journalists.
Yes … I am very proud to be here with you today. I know what you can accomplish, and I know that you have the will.