Cleaving the gloom of low, sodden skies that threatened to envelop seniors and their families gathered in the Schoellkopf Crescent, Martin Luther King III implored Cornell University's Class of 2006 to "rise up" and lead the world to a greater destiny.
"Surely the time has come for your generation to lead our nation and world into a golden era of new hope and opportunity," said King, in his May 27 Senior Convocation address to an audience of about 10,000. "The suffering masses of humanity and indeed Mother Earth herself cry out for your leadership, your courage and your vision. ... The question is, will you answer the call?" King is the second oldest child of the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, who died in January.
A human rights advocate, community activist and political leader, King opened his speech, which followed a press conference in the Statler Hotel's Harvard Room, by requesting separate rounds of applause for parents, students and faculty. Having congratulated the graduates of the Class of 2006 for their hard work, he then recited a striking fact that "will help you put into perspective what a college education means."
He said, "Only one percent of the people on Earth have a college degree. Now think about that: One out of every 100 people in the world have a college degree. No matter how common well-educated people seem to be in the United States, understand that you're now members of an elite and privileged group."
But, King cautioned, "Just because you are a member of an elite group that does not mean you have a license to start acting like an elitist. On the contrary, because of your great education ... you're here today, I believe, because you've been called to serve."
King currently serves as CEO and president of the King Center in Atlanta, the living memorial dedicated to advancing his father's legacy.
Convocation began with a welcome by convocation chair Jonathan Bellante and an address by senior class president Michael Zuckerman. The class alumni co-presidents, Kate Nadolny and Zuckerman, presented a check for $57,384 to President Hunter Rawlings. The class gift will create an annual scholarship for "a senior in need."
In his introductory comments, Rawlings praised King for his numerous contributions to social change, including his "Stop the Killing and Violence" campaign, a gun buy-back program in which 10,000 guns have been retired in 15 states.
During his talk, King repeatedly stressed commitment to public service.
"I can assure you that making the commitment to becoming a servant of humanity as a way of life will bring a deeper and much richer sense of fulfillment to your lives," he said. "No matter what career you choose, service to humanity enriches the spirit of the servant as well as the level of hope of those who are served."
He also urged graduates to "always without hesitation speak out against bigotry wherever it emerges ... and please, don't be fooled by those who are behind this current wave of immigrant bashing.
"In a very real sense, we're all immigrants and guest workers," he said. "And if you doubt it, ask any Native Americans. We would do well to remember that the overwhelming majority of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans working in the U.S. are hardworking, taxpaying, upright people, and their legitimate aspirations for a decent life for their families merit the support of all Americans who believe in freedom and justice."
Among other social justice areas, King advocated for greater representation among women in the legislative branches of government in the United States.
"Until women achieve parity ... in our nation, human needs will continue to get shortchanged in our federal, state and local budgets."
King said education is "one of the most important moral issues of our time and it is certainly a matter of the most urgent national security needs."
He said, "If we don't prepare young Americans to meet the challenges of the 21st century, we can be sure that other nations will fill the economic void and reap the economic benefits that would have been ours. A massive increase in federal, state and local funding for education is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity if we want America to be competitive with nations like China and India in the immediate future."
Straightforward and matter-of-fact in tone throughout much of his address, King demonstrated some of his father's legendary skills as an orator near the close of his speech, when he urged graduates to "rise up" like another generation of young people "who answered the call of history and helped to win the historic victories of the civil rights movement."
He said: "The torch of leadership is being passed to your generation, and the world is counting on you to light the way forward to a brighter future. So rise up ... rise up and take a courageous stand against poverty, racism, war and violence. Rise up and lead nonviolent movements to feed the hungry. Rise up and use your economic power ... to support a culture of nonviolence. Rise up and work for peace, dignity and human rights for all people in every nation."