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Congressman Charles B. Rangel Delivered Commencement Address to Bard Class of 2008 on Saturday, May 24

Darren O'Sullivan
ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y.— Congressman Charles B. Rangel received an honorary degree and delivered the commencement address as part of Bard College’s one hundred forty-eighth commencement on Saturday, May 24, 2008. At the commencement ceremony, Bard President Leon Botstein conferred 338 undergraduate degrees on the Class of 2008 and 141 graduate degrees. Honorary degrees were also awarded to choreographer Merce Cunningham, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Margaret H. Marshall, economist Eric S. Maskin, editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf Publishers Ajai Singh “Sonny” Mehta, and poetry critic Marjorie Perloff.

The following is the text of Congressman Rangel’s Commencement address:

First, let me thank Walter Swett, the class of ’06, for making it possible for me to be here on this occasion, at this historic college. I want to thank the clergy, the trustees, the professors who have really groomed you to make you ready for this wonderful day. Of course your parents and friends some of whom probably thought it never would happen, but I know that they are excited on this wonderful, wonderful occasion.

I really think that this class is going to be one that’s going to be historic in nature, and I’ll tell you why. But, before I get into that, I hope you will turn to your fellow graduate to your left and right and just say to them “you ain’t seen the last of me yet.” And the reason I say that is because there’s no question in my mind that, as you leave this great historic university, you are going to be embarking on an historic journey that this nation has never seen. And, we’re going to need you, your courage, and your talents to make certain that our great country can once again be all that she can be and beyond.

When I think in terms of occasions in my life, and it just seems sometimes like just another day or that it would not be a part of any historic, memorable part in my life—the seeing off of my late brother in 1941 to fight the great war, the coming back and joining the military in 1948, the being shot and left for dead in Korea in 1950, the finishing of school and going off into the civil rights movement. When I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery, I cursed every step of the 54 miles; I had no clue as to how I got caught up in that. What I did not know was the greatness of Dr. Martin Luther King, this spirit of the movement, and that, as a result of that march, the 1965 voters act would be enacted, and as a result of that, it was possible for me to become a candidate, to go into the Congress and to be one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which had only 13 members at that time, and now we have 43 members, and one who aspires to become the president of these great United States.

None of these events in my younger life appeared really to be historic. But, at 78, as I review where I’ve been, what I participated in, it becomes abundantly clear how many shoulders I stood on to be able to have the honor of addressing you today. And in the world that you’re going out into, you will be the leaders in making certain that never again in your lifetime would you allow this great country to enter into a war that is so unjust, so immoral, or to allow a congress to allow a president to do that.

Soon you’ll be able to tell your children and your grandchildren that one of the very first things that you wanted to do is to get this great country back on track. To make certain that war is to be a defensive mechanism and not one just to show the power of a great country. You will be able to say, with so much pride, the dignity that you brought to our country abroad where foreigners would say that it’s your class that made the changes, your class that made the differences, your class that restored all of the wonderful things that this democracy had been so proud of in the past. It will be on your terms that we will see our nation not depend on fossil fuel. It will be your ingeniousness that will bring the powers of our wind, of our sun, our geothermal, our oceans. It will be your genius to be able to say just how slow our country had been until the class of ’08 came out and put us right on the straightforward feet.

At the end of the day, you will be able to say that when you graduated, 40 million Americans had no idea what healthcare was all about. They went to work everyday and still couldn’t afford to have healthcare. So many diseases that could have been prevented were not because of lack of preventive care. Even in terms of international trade, our workforce was not as successful as it could have been because healthcare was not universal. I can just here you exaggerating your contributions now and saying “it was our class that changed all of that.”

And with the exciting personalities of Leon and the trustees and the exchanges that you’ve had in getting to know each other and in getting to know what potential America has, you are not going to tolerate people two million people locked up in jail when they could be out there working. And how so very proud I am of your university, not just to be concerned about you, but to be concerned about the lesser of our brothers and sisters, those who have no hopes and no dreams, those who are incarcerated, or those who really need more than anyone the tools to negotiate through their lives. And when we see the failure of our public school system, where half the kids are in the street without jobs, without hope, and we know that it’s not only just the right thing to do, but it’s in our national interest to have the strongest, most educated and healthiest workforce, and I can here it now, “there goes the class of ’08, they said that they were the ones that changed it around.”

And that’s the way it should be because we have so many things that we have to accomplish. And just as were talking about the wars to end all wars, the immorality of what we’re doing in Iraq today, in Vietnam before, that we will be able to say, as Leon had pointed out, that progress has been made, but we have taken one gigantic step backward, and it’s up to as Americans to make certain that we change this on our watch, that we have the mutual respect of all people regardless of their color or their religion, and that there is no glass ceiling on women or black folks or brown people in this country, because what makes us so great is the contributions that are made by so many people from so many different parts of the world.

And so it is with deep pride that I will be going home and telling my great, great kids and my grandkids that I was able to talk to the class of 2008. And if you think that you guys are doing something, you wait till they hit the ground. God bless each and every one of you. I’m so proud of what you’re going to do.


Congressman Charles B. Rangel is serving his 19th term as the representative from the 15th Congressional District, comprising East and Central Harlem, the Upper West Side, and Washington Heights/Inwood. He is the chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means, chairman of the board of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and dean of the New York State congressional delegation.

Among his achievements as Ways and Means chairman has been helping to usher in the first increase in the federal minimal wage rate in decades and passing an economic stimulus package that returns money to taxpayers struggling economically. Currently, the congressman is on the front lines of a number of issues, including ending the war in Iraq, renewing the State Child Health Insurance Program, and creating a fairer, simpler tax system by eliminating the alternative minimum wage tax and increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit. He has also called for a 21st-century fight on poverty, calling it this generation's greatest threat to national security, and has vowed to use the bully pulpit of the Ways and Means Committee to enlist a variety of private and public entities to increase educational and job opportunities.

His past achievements include principal authorship of the five-billion-dollar Federal Empowerment Zone demonstration project to revitalize urban neighborhoods throughout America. He is also the author of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, which is responsible for financing 90 percent of the affordable housing built in the United States in the last ten years. The Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which Rangel also championed, has provided thousands of jobs for underprivileged young people, veterans, and ex-offenders.
As former chairman of the Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, Rangel continues to lead the nation's fight against drug abuse and trafficking. In his efforts to reduce the flow of drugs into the United States and to solve the nation's continuing drug-abuse crisis, Rangel serves as chairman of the Congressional Narcotics Abuse and Control Caucus. He is a founding member and former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus; he was also chairman of the New York State Council of Black Elected Democrats and was a member of the House Judiciary Committee during the hearings on the articles of impeachment of President Richard Nixon. Rangel served in the U.S. Army from 1948-52, during which time he fought in Korea and was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. He has authored several pieces of legislation to benefit minority and women veterans, including a successful bill that established the Office of Minority Affairs within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In 1987, at the height of the battle against apartheid, Rangel led the effort to include in the Internal Revenue Code one of the most effective anti-apartheid measures, denial of tax credits for taxes paid to South Africa. This measure resulted in several Fortune 500 companies leaving South Africa. In addition he played a vital role in restoring the democratic government in Haiti.
Rangel is a graduate of New York University and St. John's University School of Law. He has spent his entire career in public service, first as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, and later in the New York State Assembly. He was elected to the 92nd Congress on November 3, 1970, and has been re-elected to each succeeding Congress. He lives in Harlem with his wife, Alma, who is a founding member of Congressional Black Caucus Spouses and participates in many civic and community organizations. Congressman and Mrs. Rangel have two children.


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This event was last updated on 07-30-2008