Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influence of Civil Disobedience

OGLETREE: The final thing was that as we were graduating, Stanford slapped us in the face a last time, because of all the people it could bring to celebrate the diversity -- and I graduated with honors as did a number of my classmates, Phi Beta Kappa, two degrees in four years -- our commencement speaker was Daniel Moynihan.

We said, "Wait a minute. Isn't this the guy who's talked about the black families, was very critical?" My mentor, Sinclair Drake, who was a black -- a pan-Africanist who wrote the book Black Metropolis and who educated me a lot about Brown and about racial progress, told us and educated us about Moynihan. And what we did in the first time in Stanford's history, in 1975, we told our parents to come a day early because we had to tell them something. We had to tell them that we were dismayed that Stanford had Daniel Moynihan, who was the epitome of the opposite of what we wanted to reflect as we went out into the world, as our commencement speaker, and we were not going to hear him. And what we did, we said, "We want to have a graduation so we could show you our pride for you -- single parents, people who did not have formal education, none who had gone to, you know, a predominantly white institution, some had gone to HBCUs.

And so, Saturday night we had our own graduation ceremony, and we invited Dr. Sinclair Drake, who gave a phenomenal address to our parents. And we read a statement about what our plans wanted to be tomorrow. And our parents said, "Okay, we understand." It was our act of political courage. On Sunday of commencement, as Daniel Moynihan got up to speak, the black students got up to walk out. And we walked out peacefully. And then the Chicano students got up. And then white students got up. And then our parents got up, and our relatives got up. And these hundreds of people walked out of commencement peaceably and quietly.

And it was amazing to not just see this stream of black people, but to also see Richard Kelley, a white friend of my class, in our class, seven-foot-one on the Stanford basketball team. I said, "Richard Kelley what are you doing?" He said "I'm with the brothers," right? And he marched out. But another Atlantan marched out and it shocked me. Her name was Ruby Edwards. She was very active with Dr. King. Her daughter, Belinda Edwards, was in our class. And she was in the NAACP in Atlanta. And, she said, "Help me, boy." I said "What?" She said "Hold my arm. I'm walking out with you."

I said, "Ma'am, you don't have to go. You know, your granddaughter is graduating." She says, "No, I've been doing this since before you were born. And if you kids are doing this, I'm with you." And she grabbed my arm and we marched out, and it was, it was a moment to see someone like that join it and believe in it, because she had been on the streets. She'd been in the struggle. And she said, "I'm going to lift you up." I'd have to say that that made the graduation special and memorable.

And what's amazing, Julian, is that in the year 2004, this year, the black students will have a black graduation. They've had it every single year since 1975. They have no idea that it is a response to protest. Every year hundreds of black students, undergraduates and graduates, have a Saturday night ceremony, hundreds of family members. And they come up, and each graduate gets a Kente cloth. It's placed around them by a parent, or a child if they have children, or a relative. And it is the most emotional event at Stanford. And now it's a celebration, but it started out a struggle. And that to me is a testament to the fact that Brown meant something and that we now value the fact that we are at Stanford, but we are also part of a larger black nation that has to celebrate our history, remember our past, and to grow from it. And so, it's that 1975 march, at Stanford, that led me to Harvard Law School. But it's the fact that students continue to do it, decades later, means that there's still a reflection on -- it's not just graduating from Stanford.