By Deborah Bailey,
AFRO Contributing Editor

Graduates with a diverse background graced the stage at Howard University’s (HU) Commencement Convocation at the Capital One Arena in D.C. on May 13. 

President Joe Biden addressed Howard’s 2,000 plus graduates, urging them to recognize they were graduating at an important “inflection point” in history. 

“It’s your generation, more than anyone else’s,” said Biden. “Who will answer the questions for America: Who are we?  What do we stand for?  What do you believe?  What do we believe?  What do we want to be?”

Biden is in the midst of intense negotiations over raising the nation’s debt ceilings, and thus reminding the Howard grads everyone isn’t happy to see their success. 

“Let’s be clear: There are those who don’t see you and don’t want this future. There are those who demonize and pit people against one another.  And there are those who do anything and everything, no matter how desperate or immoral, to hold onto power,” he said.

Biden reminded the graduates that what is at stake is the “soul of America.” He commended the HU audience for handling difficult situations both on campus and in the nation over the past two years, and braced them to get involved with their “voice and vote” in the days ahead.  

“I made it clear that America— Americans of all backgrounds— have an obligation to call out political violence that [has] been unleashed and emboldened,” Biden said, before addressing the “bomb threats to this very university and HBCUs across the country.”

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, HU received multiple bomb threats throughout 2022 and early 2023, including three bomb threats in less than two weeks in late August 2022 as students returned to campus.

Biden continued, “to confront the ongoing assault to subvert our elections and suppress our right to vote. That assault came just as you cast your first ballots in [the elections of] ‘20 and ‘22. Record turnouts. You delivered historic progress,” Biden added. 

Biden rallied the audience with a list of accomplishments and principles from this year’s State of the Union address, mentioning support for a woman’s fundamental right to choose abortion, affordable healthcare and housing, action on gun violence and standing against book bans and the erasure of Black history. 

Howard graduates, Biden said, would be among those with the courage to stand up for the best in America in the midst of the vitriol of America’s most hateful voices.  

In a crucial moment, President Biden said in plain terms that “…the most dangerous terrorist threat to our homeland is White supremacy.”

Biden received a warm reception from most of the more than 15,000 gathered in the Capital One Arena after receiving his address. Others, however, questioned the keynote, saying it too closely resembled a campaign speech. 

(L-R) HU President Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, Congressman James E. Clyburn (D-SC-06) and HU board member Leslie Hale as Clyburn receives an honorary doctorate degree. (Photo courtesy of Howard University)

A small group of students stood with signs in protest of the recent death of Jordan Neely, a Black man who died in a New York subway, in the fatal chokehold of another passenger, U.S. Marine veteran Daniel Penny, who is White. 

Howard grad Channing Hill held a sign that read, “A Black man was lynched yesterday! Jordan Neely!”  Another graduate yelled out “It’s not about you Joe!” as the president touted the successes of his administration. 

In addition to Biden’s address, another equally compelling and more subtle storyline came from HU president, Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick, MD, MBA, using his final address to a Howard’s graduating class, to introduce his successor, Ben Vinson, to the HU community. 

Vinson is currently provost of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and will begin his duties as president of Howard University on September 1.   His appointment as HU president is not without controversy. 

Frederick conjured the prose and imagery of Martin Luther King’s final days and his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech delivered the night before his assassination in Memphis, Tenn. as a signal that something significant was coming.  

Frederick rendered details about an emotional visit to the Lorraine Motel, preparing the Howard community for its own emotional “mountain top” experience.   Even Biden sat all the way up in his seat, hands clenched, intently looking toward Frederick as Vinson’s announcement was made, clothed in King’s words.  

”As Dr. King said it, I pray to have many more days ahead of me and I will always be an active member of the Howard family,” Frederick said pensively. 

“But as Dr. King said, it doesn’t matter with me anymore. Because this university will begin a bright new chapter, under the leadership of Dr. Ben Vinson,” Frederick announced.  

Some HU faculty said Vinson’s appointment came as a surprise. “It happened so quickly,” said one visiting professor who asked not to be identified. Presidential candidates did not visit campus before the board of trustees selected Vinson, according to Dr. Marcus Alford, Chair of the HU Faculty Senate and Associate Professor of Physics.  

Along with caution expressed by faculty, a group called the #HowardU1stBlackWomanPrez’18 Campaign, issued a May 11 statement calling on HU’s Board of Trustees to rescind Vinson’s appointment and appoint a Black woman to the HU presidency.

“Howardites everywhere are outraged, extremely insulted and deeply disappointed by the sudden HU Board of Trustees’ announcement on May 2, 2023, that it hired yet another man to be its 18th President, Dr. Ben Vinson III,” stated the release. 

Frederick admitted rough patches in the transition process but urged the University community to unify.   

“Most transitions come with a hiccup or two, but I trust that we will reach that promised land,” Frederick said.  

“And we will get there not just because of the University President or the faculty or even the students. But as one collective body. And that starts with amplifying humanity and leading with love,” Frederick concluded.  

Other honorary degree recipients include Keith Christopher Rowley, prime minister of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC-06), Bruce A. Karsh, co-founder and co-chairman of Oaktree Capital Management, Martha L. Karsh, co-founder of architectural and design firm Clark and Karsh, A. Eugene Washington, Chancellor of Health Affairs at Duke University and President & CEO of the Duke University Health System and Benaree Pratt Wiley, Corporate Director and Trustee. 

Bernard L. Richardson, Ph.D., Dean of HU’s Rankin Chapel summed up the tension between hope for the future, and the uncertainty of present conditions articulated by both Biden and Frederick in their remarks. 

Richardson’s simple benediction, one repeated each week after HU’s Rankin Chapel services, offered instructions to graduates, faculty, alumni and families on facing the precariousness of days ahead, both on the HU campus and across the nation. 

“I said to the one who stood at the gate, give me a light so I may go out into the darkness and the unknown,” Richardson prayed. 

“And she replied go out into the darkness; go out into the unknown. But put your hand in the hand of God. And God shall be better than light and safer than a known way,” Richardson concluded.

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