“We broke it, but you’ve got to fix it.”
That was the sobering call to action acclaimed filmmaker and historian Ken Burns made to the Washington University in St. Louis Class of 2015 at its 154th Commencement ceremony May 15.
“We are still playing out, sadly, an utterly American story,” Burns told approximately 15,000 graduates, parents, friends and family members gathered in Brookings Quadrangle. “The same stultifying conditions that brought on our Civil War are still on vivid display today,” he said. “Today! There is nothing new under the sun.”
And so Burns, recognizing the significance of delivering a Commencement address just a few miles “as the crow flies” from Ferguson, Mo., where racial tensions exploded last year, told the Class of 2015 that, sitting at the crux of history, they had no choice: “You’ve been called up. You’re drafted.”
Burns, who was introduced to the crowd by Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton, painted a somber yet vivid characterization of how far things had deteriorated in our country: “The shame continues,” he said. “The present population is exploding with young black men killed almost weekly by police. Whole communities of color are burdened by corrupt municipalities that resemble more the predatory company store of a supposedly bygone era than a responsible, modern local government.
“Our cities, towns and suburbs cannot become plantations,” he said.
Burns said it was up to graduates, those assembled in front of him and the generation in which they reside, to set things right again.
“You have prospects and real dreams, and I wish each and every one of you the very best,” Burns said. “But I am drafting you now into a new Union Army that must be committed to preserving the values, the sense of humor, the sense of cohesion that has long been a part of our American human nature.”
It was a message not lost on the more than 2,800 graduates and undergraduates earning diplomas. Burns’ speech was enhanced numerous times by applause from the audience, and his message resonated with the graduates on a mild morning.
“You are joining a movement that must be dedicated above all else — above career and personal advancement — to the preservation of this country’s most enduring ideals. You have to learn, and then re-teach the rest of us, that equality, real equality, is the hallmark and birthright of all Americans.”
Ever the historian, Burns quoted many historical figures in the address, from Robert Penn Warren to Missouri native Mark Twain, from Wynton Marsalis to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And, of course, “a neighbor of yours, just up the road in Springfield, (Ill.)
“We have counted on Abraham Lincoln for more than a century and a half to get it right when the undertow and tide of human events have threatened to capsize us,” Burns said. “We always come back to him for a kind of sustaining vision why we Americans still strive to cohere.
“You can change human nature again, to appeal, as Lincoln also implored us, to the ‘better angels of our nature.’ That’s the objective, and I know that you can do this.”
And when it came time for, as Burns said, the advice part of his speech, he led off with the words that garnered his first standing ovation:
“Remember: Black lives matter!”
When the applause died down, he said, “All lives matter. Reject fundamentalism, wherever it raises its ugly head. It’s not civilized.”
Among Burns’ other noteworthy pieces of advice:
“Do not descend too deeply into specialism.”
“Replace cynicism with its old-fashioned antidote, skepticism.”
“Don’t confuse monetary success with excellence.”
“Be curious, not cool. Remember, insecurity makes liars of us all.”
“Listen to jazz. A lot.”
“Serve your country.”
“Be about the unum, not the pluribus.”
And words that got even more applause: “Insist that we support science and the arts, especially the arts. They have nothing to do with the actual defense of our country — they just make our country worth defending,” he said.
Burns closed with an anecdote he brought up earlier in his remarks about the pivotal moment in Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” where Huck makes the moral decision not to turn on his friend and traveling companion Jim.
“If you ever find yourself in Huck’s spot, if you ever find yourself betwixt two things, do the right thing,” Burns told the graduates.
“Don’t forget to tear up the letter. He didn’t go to hell, and you won’t either.”
To read a full transcript of Burns’ address to the graduates, visit the Newsroom.
To read a full transcipt of Wrighton’s address to the graduates, visit the Newsroom.
To read a full transcript of Class President Jeremy Sherman’s message, visit the Newsroom.
See more photos from Commencement.