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of Our Times
In his commencement address to the Class
of 2005, John Payton ’73 reflects on the legacy of September 11.
The following text is excerpted from the commencement remarks offered by
noted civil rights attorney John Payton ’73 on May 15, 2005.
September 11 was almost four years ago. Sometimes it seems longer;
sometimes it seems like yesterday. I became the President of the
District of Columbia Bar four years ago next month—June 2001. The
District of Columbia is a medium size city with a very large Bar. There
were then over 76,000 members of the DC Bar. Over the summer the Bar is
pretty quiet. The first meeting of the Board of Governors—our
trustees—is in the fall. I had an aggressive agenda for my presidency
that was to begin at that meeting. And in 2001 that first meeting of the
Board of Governors was scheduled for Sept. 11, 2001.
September 11 was a Tuesday. That Sunday I had just returned from the
United Nations’ World Conference Against Racism that was held in Durban
South Africa. Tuesday was my first day back in the office. I had a TV on
my desk, and someone sent me an e-mail early that morning about a report
that a small plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I turned on
the TV and saw the second plane hit. …
Of course I cancelled the meeting of the Board of Governors. And,
because the Bar’s offices are only a few blocks from the White House, I
also closed the offices and told everyone to go home. The next day,
Wednesday, the Bar reopened and I decided to visit with all of the
employees who had come to work.
We met in a large conference room to talk about the unforgettable images
that are now seared into our memory. Around the room was an incredibly
diverse group of people. I asked to hear from all those in the room. One
woman talked about walking out of the Bar offices on Tuesday and not
knowing if she should walk close to any federal building out of fear it
may be a target. Another talked about cringing when a plane flew
overhead. … Another person at the meeting told of walking toward the
huge Mall that runs down the center of the District of Columbia and
seeing tens of thousands of frightened people rushing across. Men,
women, children, all races, all ethnic groups, all categories of people.
But not panicked or rude or discourteous. Rather, they were aware and
supportive of each other. Cars were gridlocked on the streets, but there
were no horns blaring. There was a common unspoken sense that we were
all in this together. Differences that had divided us the day before,
had lost meaning when the planes hit the two towers and the Pentagon.
That day we did not have a race problem in America. I think we all had a
similar initial reaction to 9/11. Horror. And unity. …
Unfortunately, that remarkable spirit of unity that we all experienced
on September 11 did not last. Almost immediately it was replaced by two
very disturbing developments. The first was a rejection of and hostility
toward the value of racial, ethnic, religious and cultural diversity.
This manifested itself in the extreme distrust of certain persons and
cultures and religions thought to be incompatible with American values
and culture. The second development was a serious erosion of fundamental
legal rights that we cherish and promote as Americans. There is irony in
both of these developments. Strength through diversity and the
importance of legal rights are key parts of the American experience.
With respect to diversity, we are the most diverse country on the earth,
the result of extraordinary immigration over centuries. Continuing to
this day. Not that we have not had fundamental problems with respect to
this diversity; but we have certainly come to understand its importance,
and even to embrace it.
Yet, after September 11, we have seen the rise of the view that the
United States does not need the rest of the world. That the concept of
the United Nations is suspect. As are some historical allies.
International agreements we had promoted only months before were
reevaluated and dismissed. Some acted as if we could—as the only
military superpower—create a “Fortress America” and relate to the rest
of the world from within that Fortress.
Even if that were possible, it would not be desirable. But it is clearly
not possible. To say there is a world economy sounds trite but it also
understates just how interrelated the world has become. Things we buy,
food we eat, Web sites we visit, services we depend upon, come from all
over the world. As do our colleagues, our friends, our teachers, our
co-workers. What happens over there, what we do over there, affects us
here. And today, we often know what happens around the world in real
time. Live. Avoiding globalization is no longer an available choice; the
only choice is the terms under which we operate in the global community.
Today, no nation can be an island. …
Learning and operating in this diverse world allows us to see people as
the people they are. Not as some type of foreign other. Fear thrives on
ignorance. Equally important, however, learning and operating in a
diverse environment allows us to see ourselves in a broader and richer
context. And to understand ourselves in that broader context.
But don’t get me wrong. Fear can sometimes overcome some of the best of
intentions. Nevertheless, what comes from understandings based on
diversity can act to protect us to some extent from that fear.
Especially the fear of an other we do not know.
This fear is what led to the second development that occurred
immediately after September 11—the erosion of legal rights. … The vague
image of Muslims or people from the Middle East or maybe just foreigners
began to emerge as the profile of a potential terrorist. Tens of
thousands of people were rounded up by the Immigration and
Naturalization Service and held without bond. The fact of their
detentions was kept secret. They were not allowed access to counsel.
Almost all of those rounded up were summarily deported. A few were
arrested and charged, as opposed to being deported without charge.
Almost all of those turned out, on inquiry, to be innocent.
Congress, in this atmosphere, passed the Patriot Act. The Attorney
General of the United States claimed that those who raised issues about
rights being trampled were giving aid and comfort to the enemy. That is
the definition of treason found in the Constitution. Chilling words
intended to be chilling.
It was in this atmosphere that in December, 2001, in a widely reported
incident here in California, the publisher of the Sacramento Bee
delivered the commencement address for the mid-year graduation
ceremonies of California State University at Sacramento. Ten thousand
students and their guests were in attendance. When the publisher talked
about why civil liberties matter in these times, she was booed. When she
raised the issue of racial profiling and worried about the possibility
that it could become routine, the crowd responded by cheering that
possibility. The speech had to be halted and she had to be led off the
stage. It was a shocking reaction by a crowd motivated by fear. …
These are the fundamental challenges of our times. Appreciating the
value and necessity of diversity in an international context and the
preservation of our core rights. As I am sure you are aware, for some
time there has been a sense that younger generations have been drifting
with respect to involvement in social and political issues. That there
was a lack of commitment, even a lack of conviction. …
Now, I know that is a generalization and that Pomona students certainly
exemplified the unifying reaction to September 11 that I talked about
earlier. There were teach-ins and rallies on this campus that were
designed to be unifying. That said, I have heard this concern about
commitment by your generation from some of you as well.
Why is this the case? I think part of the explanation relates to an
impression that the most significant social issues—civil rights is the
example most used in this discussion—that the most significant social
issues were addressed by my generation and largely resolved. That there
is less need for commitment today.
Let me be blunt here. That impression is false. We have made progress,
no doubt about that. But we have certainly not solved the problems. We
still see significant racial and ethnic disparities in economic
achievement, educational achievement, our criminal justice system, our
neighborhoods, our life possibilities. And beyond issues of race are
other important challenges. Issues of economic and social justice. And,
it should be obvious that every one of these issues today has to be seen
in a broader international context.
Equally important, of course, there are these new overriding and
fundamental issues at play today.
Democracy depends on each successive generation to recommit to its
values and to see that they are preserved. Because what our government
does it does in our name. Of the people, by the people and for the
people. It is our democracy.
My generation thought we could achieve racial and social justice. We
thought we could affect the Vietnam War. Perhaps more important, we
thought we should do these things. We were confident and cocky. And, in
hindsight, sometimes quite simplistic. But committed and certainly not
lacking in courage. It is not that we all went off to be activists. It
is that we took these attitudes with us wherever we ended up.
Those were exciting times. Challenging times. Times whose outcome was
uncertain. Like today. Nothing is certain. Except that these too are
exciting times, challenging times. Times that require commitment and
There are huge issues before us today. So what can any of us do
individually? You all know the answer. You are a special group of
individuals, from a special college. Some of you are future leaders. All
of you can make an impact. You can bring commitment to these issues. You
can bring courage to these issues.
It’ s your turn. Make us proud.