Thursday, June 07, 2007

Bill Moyers' Commencement Speech at SMU

Bill Moyers presented the commencement speech for the Southern Methodist University Class of 2007 on May 19.

The entire speech is more than worth your time. You can find it at:

What follows is just a section of his poignant commentary on life in the USA today, a big part of the world every graduate will face as they move out with their lives.

Let me see if I can say it a different way. A moment ago, when the reunion class of 1957 stood up to be recognized, I was taken back half a century to my first year at the University of Texas. In my mind’s eye I saw Gilbert McAlister – “Dr. Mac” – pacing back and forth in his introductory class to anthropology. He had spent his years as a graduate student among the Apache Indians on the plains of Texas. He said he learned from them the meaning of reciprocity. In the Apache tongue, he told us, the word for grandfather was the same as the word for grandson. Generations were linked together by mutual obligation. Through the years, he went on; we human beings have advanced more from collaboration than competition. For all the chest-thumping about rugged individuals and self-made men, it was the imperative and ethic of cooperation that forged America. Laissez faire – “Leave me alone” – didn’t work. We had to move from the philosophy of “Live and let live” to “Live and help live.” You see, civilization is not a natural act. Civilization is a veneer of civility stretched across primal human appetites. Like democracy, civilization has to be willed, practiced, and constantly repaired, or society becomes a war of all against all.

Think it over: On one side of this city of Dallas people pay $69 for a margarita and on the other side of town the homeless scrounge for scraps in garbage cans. What would be the civilized response to such a disparity?

Think it over: In 1960 the gap in wealth between the top 20% of our country and the bottom 20% was thirty fold. Now it is 75 fold. Stock prices and productivity are up, and CEO salaries are soaring, but ordinary workers aren’t sharing in the profits they helped generate. Their incomes aren’t keeping up with costs. More Americans live in poverty – 37 million, including 12 million children. Twelve million children! Despite extraordinary wealth at the top, America’s last among the highly developed countries in each of seven measures of inequality.

Our GDP outperforms every country in the world except Luxembourg. But among industrialized nations we are at the bottom in functional literacy and dead last in combating poverty. Meanwhile, regular Americans are working longer and harder than workers in any other industrial nation, but it’s harder and harder for them to figure out how to make ends meet…how to send the kids to college…and how to hold on securely in their old age. If we’re all in this together, what’s a civilized response to these disparities?

America’s a broken promise. America needs fixing. . . .

Some of the elders among you will remember that Martin Luther King made a powerful speech here at SMU in 1966. It’s been said – this part of the story may be apocryphal – that when he was asked why he chose SMU instead of one of the all-black colleges, Dr. King replied: “Because if John Wesley were around he’d be standing right here with me.” Martin Luther King said at SMU: “…The challenge in the days ahead is to work passionately and unrelentingly…to make justice a reality for all people.” One of your own graduates – the Reverend Michael Waters – got it right a few years ago when he was a student here: “Martin Luther King became the symbol not only of the civil rights movement but of America itself: A symbol of a land of freedom where people of all races, creeds, and nationalities could live together as a Beloved Community.”

Not as an empire. Or a superpower. Not a place where the strong take what they can and the weak what they must. But a Beloved Community. It’s the core of civilization, the crux of democracy, and a profound religious truth.

But don’t go searching for the Beloved Community on a map. It’s not a place. It exists in the hearts and minds – our hearts and minds – or not at all.


Anonymous said...

Larry, very insightfull and convicting words my Bill Moyers. Much like your words at Southlake. I am always convicted and challenged by your messages. Thanks. Please check out my blog at

Your partner in prayer, Bill.

beadman said...

And for many of us there is something even more to the point than what is the civilized response. Namely, what should be the Christian response?

beadman said...


Thank you your message last night. Do you get the sense that there is a great reawakening happening among believers? I am hearing so much of the same thing from so many sources, including personal study and meditation that is then confirmed by someone like you -- and then realizing it was there all along. There are so many exciting conversations going on right now about action and engagement outside our socioeconomic group.

And beyond the conversations ... even a little bit of action, too. It's as if we've camped out on Eph. 2:8-9 for about the last 20 years, and suddenly we've all decided to read one more verse.

beadman said...

A little personal testimony on this topic:

Larry James said...

Thanks for all these posts! My Southlake friendships are very important to me! And, I agree with what you are saying and sensing. See you next week!