May and June are the months for graduations, and it's difficult to avoid going to one or two even if your own kids and relatives aren't among those moving on. One of my first for the season was last week's graduation exercises at the University of the District of Columbia, where John H. Johnson, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines, addressed the 1,000 graduates.
I knew what Johnson had done with his own life: He began as a poor boy, rose to the top ranks of the publishing business at an early age and has remained there for the past 40 years. But I was pleasantly surprised about what he had to say as well as his concern for the graduates, most of whose lives are unlikely to see their promise fulfilled.
Johnson is supremely confident about the work he has done -- just this month Black Enterprise Magazine named his company the number one black business in America -- but he hasn't forgotten where he came from nor has he abandoned his social responsibility.
Most striking was his alarm at the nation's present economic and social crisis. I would not have been surprised to hear such sentiments from a social scientist or a politician, but I did not expect such intensity from a businessman whose enterprises grew 17.7 percent in one year for a record $138.9 million in sales in 1984. But America's top black chief executive officer was not exultant as he looked out over the black-robed students who listened intently despite a sweltering sun:
"We are approaching a point of no return in black America, and we need the light and hope of the graduates of this day," he told them. "We are confronted today with one of the gravest crises we have faced as a people since the end of slavery."
Talking about high unemployment, rising poverty statistics and teen pregnancies, Johnson said: "Everywhere we turn, we read alarming statistics on the mounting tribulations of blacks and other minorities. And to make matters worse, we are confronted with a massive reaction against the civil rights gains of the '60s. Not since the first Reconstruction period have we seen so many assaults on gains made . . . . We are under siege . . . threatened in the inner zones of our spirit."
But Johnson did not suggest that his listeners take to sticks, stones or guns in this battle he sees shaping up. He gave them some advice that might seem a little corny, or perhaps even unfair in the way it places the onus for change entirely on the victims. But as one of only a few hundred black millionaires in America, and as an individual who understands the slippery road to success, Johnson mesmerized his audience with his Horatio Alger advice:
"Our weapons in this war will be volleys of excellence that cannot be ignored or denied, and our soldiers will be men and women who are so good at what they do, whether it is law, science, computers or domestic service, that they make themselves indispensable in their communites . . . . We need graduates who can slam-dunk money and technology as well as basketballs."
As he pleaded with the graduates to make the most of their lives, small children darted restlessly around the perimeter of the quadrant where the graduates sat. I couldn't help but wonder what the future would hold for both these generations, and whether the graduates understood the rules they would have to use to translate the words they were hearing into action and results.
One step they must take is to adopt the attitude that, racism aside, they will assume full responsibility for what happens to them and not let anyone else limit where they can go.
This is a tough time to adopt such an attitude: Blacks are angry with the Reagan administration's policies, and many are living with quiet rage. Johnson admonished them to translate that rage into a positive economic contribution to the entire nation.
"If I were lucky enough to be young, gifted and black, I would make no small plans. I would decide today that I was going to the mountaintop and that I was going to be the best something the world has ever known."
As I was walking to my car after the ceremony, I saw Johnson being driven away in a black limousine, heading for the airport and a return flight to Chicago. He had been applauded as a role model, a mentor and a teacher. But I knew that he didn't have to appear at UDC that day. I could only conclude that he was there because he cared. And I realized that each of us similarly has an individual responsibility to pursue answers and to care.