By 1994 Colin Powell, the son of a Jamaica-born Harlem merchant, had already served as National Security Adviser to President George Herbert Walker Bush and chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Persian Gulf War. He would become the first African American Secretary of State in 2001 under President George W. Bush. On May 14, 1994, however, Powell most important task of the day was as commencement speaker at Howard University in Washington, D.C. His address appears below.
The real challenge in being a commencement speaker is figuring out how long to speak. The graduating students want a short speech, five to six minutes and lets get it over. They are not going to remember who their commencement speaker was anyway. P O W E L L.
Parents are another matter. Arrayed in all their finery they have waited a long time for this day, some not sure it would ever come, and they want it to last. So go on and talk for two or three hours. We brought our lunch and want our moneys worth.
The faculty member who suggested the speaker hopes the speech will be long enough to be respectable, but not so long that he has to take leave for a few weeks beginning Monday.
So the poor speaker is left figuring out what to do. My simple rule is to respond to audience reaction. If you are appreciative and applaud a lot early on, you get a nice, short speech. If you make me work for it, were liable to be here a long time.
You know, the controversy over Howards speaking policy has its positive side. It has caused the university to go through a process of self-examination, which is always a healthy thing to do. Since many people have been giving advice about how to handle this matter, I thought I might as well too.
First, I believe with all my heart that Howard must continue to serve as an institute of learning excellence where freedom of speech is strongly encouraged and rigorously protected. That is at the very essence of a great university and Howard is a greet university.
And freedom of speech means permitting the widest range