Franklin at Graduation: Work for the Good of Society

August 1, 2006

In his May 14 commencement address, John Hope Franklin Hon. '98 advised graduates to take time to improve society and, in particular, to assist the nation's schools and help combat racism. "The community and the nation need you to use your energies and talents to assist our government and the people as they work for the good of society," Franklin said.

Of the schools, he said, "You know the scenario as well as anyone: ungovernable students, rampant gangs, drug and alcohol abuse extending below the middle schools, an over-emphasis on athletics and an under-emphasis on serious study and academic achievement."

Franklin also noted a resurgence of racism in this country and urged graduates to fight against it. "What better way for you to take on your role as responsible, mature citizens than to insist that the American ideal of equality of race, sex, religion, and ethnic groups be adhered to, because that idea was bought and paid for by all Americans, regardless of race," he said, prompting applause from the audience.

Under sunny skies, Duke awarded more than 4,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees at the Sunday morning ceremony in Wallace Wade Stadium. It was the university's 154th commencement. For the first time, commencement speakers stood against a backdrop of six tall, faux Gothic towers decorated with flags from the university's nine schools.

Despite the recent media scrutiny related to the lacrosse incident, little was unusual about this year's commencement except for the new backdrop and an increased number of reporters and cameras. A handful of graduates also wore the numbers 13 and 45 on their mortarboards, in support of indicted lacrosse players Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann, who wore those numbers on their jerseys.

President Richard H. Brodhead awarded honorary degrees to Steven Chu, a physics professor and Nobel Prize winner; Martin Eakes, founder and CEO of the community-development organization Self-Help; Nina Totenberg, a broadcast journalist with National Public Radio; and James Wyngaarden, professor emeritus of medicine at Duke and former director of the National Institutes of Health.

Brodhead introduced Franklin, James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of history, as someone who not only "virtually founded the study of African-American history," but also embodied the value of "using knowledge in service to the common good." Franklin, ninety-one, is considered a leading figure in the field of African-American history, American race relations, and Southern history.

The student speaker, senior Yazan Kopty, has lived in the United States, Jordan, Belgium, and the United Arab Emirates and spent last summer interviewing Palestinian refugees. After graduation, he will go to Cambodia on a Hart Fellowship. Kopty talked about his memories of Duke: mistakenly taking the Robertson bus to Chapel Hill instead of East Campus ("I did that twice"), chatting with friends on the Chapel steps, and "the good, the bad, and the basketball." Like Franklin, he urged the graduates to use their educations to make the world a better place. He said he has spent his entire life negotiating difficult terrain and knows how uncomfortable that is.

"I also know it is rewarding and powerful and, most of all, necessary," he said. "None of us were born into an equal or balanced world. While we are the lucky ones, we are all in this together. Indeed, this is the challenge of the global era."