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Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III Delivers Commencement Address at Florida A&M University

Well hello there Rattler nation! Mostly silence… let’s try that again. Hello there Rattler nation!

Thank you, Dr. Robinson, for that kind introduction.

It’s great to be here with you, even virtually, and I’m grateful to the faculty, the staff, and the Board of Trustees for inviting me to spend this evening with all of you.

And I want to thank FAMU’s President, Dr. Larry Robinson, for his tremendous leadership of an institution that has produced generation after generation of leaders –and of course, the Marching 100, the nation’s finest college marching band!

Most of all, I want to thank you all, the Class of 2021.

I hope you’re staying safe and healthy.

I’m sorry I couldn’t be there in person with you today.

But I’m still fired up to celebrate your achievements.

As I’ve said before, this has been no ordinary year, and this will be no ordinary graduation.

The pandemic has disrupted all our lives. It has taken the lives of so many others.

I know it’s been rough on all of us.

And for everyone tuning in, let’s face it: Graduating from college is a monumental achievement under any circumstances.

But you’ve been forced to overcome extraordinary challenges: disrupted studies, remote learning, upended social lives, and uncertain futures.

Not to mention the fact that last year’s Florida Classic game was cancelled.

Despite it all, this class of Rattlers has lived up to your school motto and stood ready to “strike and strike and strike again!”

So thank you for your perseverance and your persistence.

I hope that you’re proud of yourselves.

Because we are certainly proud of you.

And speaking of proud: This day also belongs very much to your parents and to your families.

They have supported you, they have stuck by you, and they have been your biggest cheerleaders.

So parents, families, and loved ones, take a bow for everything you’ve done for this class.

I’m not sure which of you is happier today… the parents or the graduates… but you both deserve the credit.

Now, I know that some of you may be a little anxious about entering “the real world” right now.

And you may be thinking that the timing is not exactly… ideal.

Well… we don’t get to choose our times, but we do get to shape them.

Our country is confronting multiple challenges on multiple fronts:

from COVID-19 and the climate crisis;

to the scourge of racial injustice and violent extremism;

and, to the very real nation-state threats.

But, you know, these challenges, like all challenges, come with immense opportunities. 

Every FAMU graduate has been given the distinctive gift and the privilege to meet this moment head-on.

And today, I’d like to offer you a few words about some of the values that I’ve grown up with—values that continue to serve me to this very day.

You know, each of you had your own reasons for attending this wonderful school.

Some of you may have wanted to follow in the footsteps of notable alumni like Army Colonel Gregory Clark or other HBCU trailblazers like Vice President Kamala Harris. 

Others may have been in search of a community with a shared sense of pride in Black heritage, and Black culture, and Black history.

Let’s be honest, some of you just wanted front-row seats to one of the greatest homecoming celebrations on Earth.

But whatever brought you here, you are leaving FAMU with the tools and the talents to create change and to make “good trouble,” as the late great Congressman John Lewis famously said.

That’s the FAMU way.

You know your alma mater has a storied history of serving its community and leading the fight for progress—from its founding in 1887 to the creation of FAMU Hospital in 1911 to its tremendous ROTC and Naval ROTC programs, which are producing extraordinary young men and women committed to service today.

Of course, military service in particular goes way back at FAMU.

In 1942, a young man named James Polkinghorne was entering his senior year at FAMU and working as a bellhop in Pensacola, Florida.

He enlisted as a private in the Army—but was rejected from flight training because of the color of his skin.

Eventually, he became the first FAMU student accepted into the U.S. Army Air Corps and the first FAMU student to become one of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen. 

A couple of years later, Lieutenant Polkinghorne was leading a squadron of fighters over Italy. 

Tragically, he was shot down and killed.

He was 22 years old.

You can find his name listed on the Tablets of the Missing at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Italy, and on the Aviation Wall of Fame at the Tallahassee International Airport… and, of course, on your very own campus at Polkinghorne Village.

It’s good that we remember his service and his sacrifice… giving his life for a nation that had not yet given him… or his family…  even the most basic of rights.

And  it’s that kind of service – the selfless kind – that I want to talk to you about today.

You see, you don’t have to serve in the military to serve your country… although I can send the forms, if any of you want to sign up. 

I’m told I’d even be allowed to swear you in.

But your country needs you – all of you.  And I hope you’ll find ways… your own ways to serve.

The possibilities are endless, from the Park Service to the Foreign Service and everything in between. 

And you know it doesn’t  have to be an occupation.

You could volunteer your time and your talents to your community. 

You could Coach Little League… you could tutor a student…

or support a polling place come election time.

And when you do—and I know there is a strong spirit of volunteerism and community service here on FAMU’s campus—but when you do…  you will learn just as much about yourself as you do about others.

You’ll learn that we aren’t always as divided as we seem.

You’ll learn that we’re better when we listen to one another… when we value each other’s gifts.

And service  is a gift.

It’s about appreciating what the MANY can do to support the ONE big thing, whatever that big thing is.

For me, right now, that one big thing is the Defense Department.

And it IS a big place, with a lot of resources and a very important mission: and that mission is to defend this nation and everyone in it. 


We can’t accomplish that mission if we exclude from our ranks any qualified American who wants to serve and who can make the grade.

And we surely can’t accomplish it if we are too afraid to be challenged by good ideas from people who haven’t always had the chance to put those ideas forward… and to be treated with dignity and respect while doing so.

Now, some of you might be thinking, that’s easy for him to say.  Here he is… the Secretary of Defense… at the top of the chain of command.

But just remember, no matter how important your job, or how high up the ladder you climb, unless you’re the CEO or owner of your own private business, most of us will always have a boss.  And of course, for me… that’s Mrs. Austin.

But in all seriousness, my first piece of advice is to always have a sense of humility—and a sense of humor. 

Humility will let you recognize your strengths as well as your weaknesses.

It will enable you to grow… and to learn… … and to make a difference.

You know, I started out just like many of you. 

I am the son of a postal worker, and a homemaker from Thomasville, Georgia.

And like many of you, I faced a lot of difficulties along the way.

I know what it’s like to be ignored…

I know what it’s like to be underestimated...

I know what it’s like to be suspected.

And I know what it’s like to be feared…

and to fear in return.

I’m sure you do, too.

Maybe you’ve even sometimes questioned yourself or your own self-worth.

But when that happens, I urge you to find your North Star… and to remember who you are and where you came from.

You can’t forget what got you here.

I sure didn’t.

Not in Thomasville… or on the playing fields at West Point. 

Not on the war-torn streets of Baghdad, Iraq… or in the treacherous mountain passes of northern Afghanistan.

And certainly not in the halls of the Pentagon.

Yes, there were times when I felt like maybe I had to work a little harder than the other guy.

But I welcome that work. 

In fact, I enjoy that work.

I made it my life habit.

When I decided as a young man to join the Army and go to West Point, I asked my mom one day,

“Mom, do you think I could ever become a general? Is that possible?”

And her response was simple.

She said, “Baby… you can be whatever you want to be, as long as you’re willing to work hard.” She said, “you can be whatever you want to be, as long as you’re willing to work hard.”

As was typically the case, my mom was right, and that’s my second piece of advice to you.

Be willing to work hard.

It’s made all the difference for me.

And that doesn’t mean that the old shackles of discrimination have gone away.

It doesn’t mean old structures won’t hold people back.

But it does mean that hard, and dedicated work to try to build things up does something for the soul.  

Service can be that way… a life habit and a lot of hard work.

And it’s work worth doing, especially if you’re part of a team.

I was fortunate for 41 years to be part of the Army team, to be a soldier. 

And to be a soldier, you have to be a lot of things these days: a warfighter, for sure… but also a humanitarian and a diplomat… A spouse… A parent… A brother or sister in arms…  A teammate.

And that’s the third and final lesson I’d offer you today. 

As you contemplate what’s next for you… think about how you might serve as part of a team.

Think about one of your own graduates and one of MY teammates, Air Force Brigadier General Konata Crumbly.

General Crumbly was commissioned as an Army aviation officer in your ROTC program at FAMU.

After becoming a Black Hawk pilot, he served in Operation Allied Force in Yugoslavia in 1999.

In 2003, although I didn’t know it at the time, we were actually part of the same team.  I was an assistant division commander for the 3rd Infantry Division, helping lead my unit into Iraq on the ground, and little did I know at the time, that then-Army Captain Crumbly was helping us in the skies above. 

Captain Crumbly would go on to become a U.S. Air Force pilot, flying an airborne surveillance system known as an E-8.

 He’d fly combat missions over Iraq and Afghanistan, watching and protecting our men and women in uniform below.

Captain Crumbly is now General Crumbly, and I know firsthand that you don’t become a General in the United States military unless you’re willing to work as part of a team.

I’m proud of his dedication and his discipline, and I’m honored to be on the same team. 

Now… let me leave you with the words of another fellow Rattler.

Decades ago, Patricia Stephens Due led the fight for civil rights in Tallahassee, rooted in lessons she learned on the FAMU campus.

And she said, “History happens one person at a time.”

That means each of you.

And that means right now.

So go out and make some history.

Find ways to serve our country in its time of need, and to make this world a more just and a more decent place.

And as I said, we don’t get to choose our times… but we do get to shape them.

And we can shape them with humility, and hard work, and teamwork… with a sense of the ways we can make ourselves better, and do the same for our nation and for our world.

With a sense of the importance of putting your shoulder to the wheel, with devotion to a worthy cause.

And with the knowledge that we work together when we are all bound together.

With the knowledge that we are stronger together… with the understanding that we are BETTER together.

As I think of all you’ve accomplished, I know you are ready to shape your futures… and this nation’s future. 

And I am filled with optimism today—not exactly the same optimism your parents are feeling at not having to write any more tuition checks… 

But I’m filled with optimism because I believe in your generation’s ability to meet head-on the challenges that we face.

Remember, you can be anything that you want to be, if you are willing to work hard for it.

And in the audience today, there is a future Vice President, perhaps, Vice President of the United States of America. There is a future Secretary of State, and perhaps a future Secretary of Defense. It’s up to you.

We are all very proud of you.

Congratulations, Class of 2021. I wish you good luck and godspeed.

Thank you.