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Volume 41. No. 2.
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The Challenge 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 courage.

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.
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