Amos’s Sermon: What I Would Tell Fellow Graduates

BY AMOS JONES

CAMBRIDGE, MASS., APRIL 17, 2006 – In preparation for Commencement Exercises and in anticipation of nostalgia, certain to set in as I pack up and move away from this campus, I paid a visit to the Pusey Library, home of Harvard’s Special Collections. There I examined Harvard artifacts including old Commencement Programs, which used to be printed in Latin. I was drawn there when I learned that a very distinguished Baptist pastor and 33-year president of Howard University delivered a graduation oration when he received his degree from the Divinity School in 1922. His topic was “The Religion of the American Negro.” Eighty-four years later, I would take a similar approach. My topic would be “Social Engineering,” my aim to affirm students of all political and social persuasions to contemplate their inevitable functions as social engineers. My speech would go something like what follows.

Look to your left. Look to your right. There is no Black House here.

Let me explain.

On this campus, in this community, racial constituencies are intentionally integrated. All Harvard students have been co-mingled since the undergraduate Houses were made open in the middle of the last century.

This has not been the case elsewhere. Amid the tide of social upheaval that defined the 1960s, many institutions similar to ours found themselves distracted from ordinary academic concerns because of extraordinary socio-political events – especially the apex of the Civil Rights Movement. In the wake of its successes, a push from many Black student groups came forth loudly and ceremoniously: “As we come to this campus,” the pleading went, “grant us the option of living among our own. We want you to erect for us a special place where we can feel truly at home.” Despite some reasonable arguments supporting the appeal, Harvard seemed to say, “Been there, done that.” The University, to its everlasting credit, rejected the idea. The result today is one of the most thoroughly integrated environments in the academic world. We stand in the middle of a living example of sound social engineering.

In 2004, Americans celebrated what is widely regarded as a high-water mark of social engineering. We toasted 50 years of life under the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. That case declared the concept of separate but equal unconstitutional. And although its impact remains somewhat ambiguous because racial disparities in education remain, the case is generally regarded as prudently decided. It spurred the gradual eradication of legalized racial discrimination in all other areas of American life.

Last fall, Harvard University vicariously celebrated the decision in honoring one of the Law School’s most influential alumni. Charles Hamilton Houston was the intellectual architect of the legal strategy that resulted in the Brown decision, which was unanimous. Dr. Houston was the first Black editor of the Harvard Law Review. He earned the Bachelor of Laws in 1922 and the Doctor of Juridical Science in 1923. As dean of the Howard University Law School, Dr. Houston acted upon his belief that without the diligence of law teachers and legal scholars, the law might never be more than precedents, with new judgments merely confirming the correctness of earlier judgments.

The Brown decision, of course, flatly reversed the 58-year-old Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson. (Talk about bad social engineering!) Thankfully, Dr. Houston and his students, including Thurgood Marshall, set out against that judicial travesty, which authorized from the bench a 58-year reign of terror. Dr. Houston famously and continually announced to his students, quote, “A lawyer’s either a social engineer or he’s a parasite on society.” In September of last year, Harvard Law School opened the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice.

But the question remains. Just what is a social engineer? A social engineer, in Houstonian jurisprudence, is a highly skilled, perceptive, sensitive lawyer who understands the Constitution and knows how to explore its uses in the solving of problems of communities and in bettering conditions of the underprivileged citizens. Now, please keep in mind that social engineering, like engineering within the natural sciences, can have positive and negative consequences. The Big Dig in Boston would represent generally good engineering. The levee system that failed New Orleans would represent generally bad engineering.

If I have learned anything at Harvard – in the Law School and also in the two Divinity School courses I took – it is that solving vexing problems requires the input of an informed, empowered, and self-aware aggregation of committed individuals. And lawyers are rarely the parties primarily responsible for large-scale social transformation. Lawyers, in fact, are constrained to act upon the requests of clients and potential clients. Social engineering, therefore, is primarily the province of everybody.

The Reverend President Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, who spoke from this platform as a Divinity School degree candidate in 1922, articulated the theological manifestation of this mandate. In his capacity as a Baptist pastor, he had written: “This religion reemphasized with new aspects to suit the modern needs will bring forth great moral and spiritual engineers. God grant that I might be one of these among my own people!” It is worth noting that several years later, as Howard University’s first Black president, Dr. Johnson facilitated Dr. Houston’s promotion within the Howard Law School.

Recall, as well, that at the micro extreme, Brown v. Board of Education began with a walkout orchestrated by the late Barbara Johns, a 15-year-old Black girl fed up with dilapidated school facilities in Prince Edward’s County, Virginia. At the macro extreme, the fulfillment of Brown’s promise was animated by the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., who channeled the will of multicultural masses into an edifice including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

It is already the year 2006 – and there is no Black House here. But we cannot afford to assume that the hardest questions are not re-appearing in other forms. Important choices of substantial societal impact are certain to present themselves over and over. As products of these esteemed graduate and professional schools, we will choose how to respond. We will sit on the premises of what we have learned, or we will stand on its promises.

In contemplating our new degrees – these auspicious indications of sharpened sensibilities – may each of us resolve to contribute in some way to rightly transformative social engineering.

Amos Jones is a 3L from Lexington, Ky. Reach him at amosjonescomment@aol.com.

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