An official website of the United States Government 
Here's how you know

Official websites use .gov

.gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS

A lock ( lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

'A Summons to Service': Remarks by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III at Fayetteville State University's Commencement (As Delivered)

Maya [Student Government Association President Maya Martin], many thanks for that outstanding introduction. You're a tough act to follow. Madam President—Madam President, that sounds pretty good.

[Laughter and applause]

I'll see you in 20 years, Maya, in Washington.

And hello, Fayetteville State University!


It's great to be back in Fayetteville. For years, I served just down the road at Fort Bragg. And so for me, being here feels just like coming home.

Fort Bragg is home to some of the world's finest warfighters. And their strength is a reflection of this community. So I want to thank the people of Fayetteville for making this place such a special place for our troops and their families.

And Fayetteville is a pretty special place for me as well. For more than 40 years, I've been happily married to a woman whom I met right here in Fayetteville: my favorite Bronco, Charlene Austin, Class of ‘82.


As I was preparing this speech, I asked Charlene for some advice. And she suggested that I start with an important question. And it's the same question you've heard a couple of times this morning.

But let me see if I can get this right: Can I get an attituuuuuuude check?

[Audience shouts, "Bronco pride!"]

Alright. Alright. You know, that "Bronco pride" is everywhere in this crowd today.

You can feel it from your professors, and your deans, and your mentors. Since that first "University Studies" class, they have challenged you, and mentored you, and pushed you to be your best. So let's hear it for your professors and the university staff!


Really glad to be here with Chancellor Allison. He's a special guy. And I want to thank him for his great work to make the whole FSU community stronger from military-connected students to adult learners to first-generation students. And you've worked to offer free undergraduate tuition to military students and veterans. That's just outstanding, in my view. So let's give him a hand.


Now, this is a huge day for the families and friends who have gathered here as well. They have cheered you on. They have sacrificed for you. And they've encouraged you every step of the way.

Because they believe in you. And they believe in the power of education—even though they're pretty excited to be done with paying the tuition bills as well.

But this graduation belongs to them as well. So let's make some noise for your family and friends.


And I'm sure that you remember that tomorrow is Mother's Day, right?


So for all the moms, the grandmothers, and the godmothers—let's give it up for them.


Above all, graduates—and you've heard this a couple times this morning, but I've got to say it again—I hope that you are proud of what you've achieved. Because we are all deeply proud of you.

You've made it through a global pandemic. You got through College Algebra. You put in the study hours at Chesnutt Library. And if you're here today, that means that you've paid off every last parking ticket.


You've learned from your professors and your coaches. And you've learned from your classmates.

You've shown fierce determination. And some of you held down full-time jobs just to get here today. And some of you helped your kids finish their homework before starting your own.

You've developed resilience every time that you were almost on time for class—but got stuck waiting for that endless freight train to pass by. You know who you are.

So let's hear it for the Class of 2023.


Now, I know that I'm standing between you and some serious celebrating. But I'd like to take a few minutes to talk to you this morning about the importance of service—because one of the things that makes Fayetteville State so special is its proud tradition of public service.

I'm thinking today of a young man named Andrew Johnson, who attended this school in the early 1940s.

His dream was to fly airplanes. And at the time, that was nearly unheard-of for African Americans like him. But he insisted and he persisted. And eventually, he joined the elite group known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

And during World War II, they fought for America from the skies even while being forced into segregated, sub-standard quarters, and dining halls, and bathrooms back on the ground. They were often treated as second-class citizens. But there was nothing second-class about their service.

The Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 15,000 successful missions in World War II. Like so many Black Americans throughout history, they defended our country with courage, and discipline, and honor.

And after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the magnificent service of Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Johnson and the Tuskegee Airmen could no longer be denied. 

In 1948, President Truman ordered equal treatment and opportunity in the U.S. military.

Now, that didn't break down every barrier. But it did open new horizons for Black Americans.

And this year, we celebrate the 75th anniversary of Truman's executive order, which let qualified patriots serve our country, regardless of the color of their skin. And it paved the path toward a U.S. military where all brave Americans can rise as high as their talents and their initiative can take them.

And I am proud that, in just a few minutes, we will recognize 17 graduates who will become America's newest Second Lieutenants. Let's give them a round of applause.


So graduates, service deepens our democracy. Service brings us closer to the full promise of America's founding. Service builds on itself. And long after you graduate, I hope that you can carry forward the FSU legacy of service.

Now, I don't just mean serving in uniform. Service is volunteering in your community. It's making sure that every citizen gets a fair shot at the American dream. It is doing your part to make real our country's highest ideals of liberty and justice for all. And it's paying $136 for two lots on Gillespie Street to start a school for Black children—as this school's seven founders did back in 1867.

Now, that kind of progress has never been easy.

And I've seen that in my own life.

I went to high school nearly two decades after President Truman integrated the military—and about 15 years after the Supreme Court ruled that so-called "separate but equal" schools violated our Constitution. But we still lived in a painfully segregated society.

I grew up in Georgia in the time of Jim Crow. Our local public high school had long been all-white. And one of my sisters and I were among the first Black students to integrate it.

And so those were pretty ugly days. And the first year was especially tough.

But I am still grateful to the people of goodwill—including the teachers, and the school leaders, and the public officials—who made sure that my sister and I could get a good public education.

I still remember their quiet resolve and their civic spirit. And they taught me that service means standing firm on the American principle that all people are created equal. Service means demanding equality of opportunity for all of our children. And service means setting an example. 

And for me, that example came from one of my uncles.

He proudly served during the Vietnam War as a Green Beret. Now, that would have been impossible just a few years earlier. And I still remember him coming home, wearing that Green Beret and sporting those jump boots. And I saw him, and I thought to myself, "You know, I've just got to do that. I've just got to have some of that."

And so his service led to my service.

It led me to the U.S. Army—for a brief, 41-year career.


And today, I am deeply honored to be with you as your Secretary of Defense.


Now, I know that the road forward may seem steep. And I know that many of you see the distance between where America is and where America should be. And what America can be.

But America's real promise is our democracy. And our democracy needs you. Each and every one of you.

As the poet Archibald MacLeish once said, "Democracy is never a thing done. Democracy is [always] something that a nation must be doing."

So you've got careers to start. You have obligations to meet. You've got mountains to climb.

And I know that many of you and your families had to already dig deep just to make it here today.

But I hope that you will always remember your duty to help those who are less fortunate. And I hope that you will always remember the words of the great civil-rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, who once said, "Nobody's free until everybody's free."


A degree from an HBCU means lifelong pride and lifelong responsibility. With all that this university has given you, we need for you to give something back—in whatever way you choose.

We need for you to become doctors and nurses who'll heal the sick. We need you to become lawyers who'll always fight for change. We need you to become entrepreneurs who'll make our economy work for all Americans. We need you to become teachers who'll pass on the mighty gift of education. And yes—we need some of you to stand up, and salute, and to defend the United States by joining the greatest fighting force in the history of the world.


And so you'll do it your way.

And you'll contribute to something bigger than yourself.

You know, whenever I think about what it means to serve, I think about one of my greatest mentors. Her name was Frances Hesselbein. And she died last year at the age of 107. She led and transformed the Girl Scouts of America. Fortune Magazine named her one of the world's 50 greatest leaders.

And Frances would always say, "To serve is to live."

Now, as you graduate today, I know that some of you are worried about what's next. That's normal—absolutely normal. And chances are, at some point in your life, you might question whether or not you're on the right path.

But in those moments, I ask that you think about serving others. You'll always have plenty to do. And you'll feel deep and lasting pride as you do it.

Because service nourishes the soul.

Because to serve is to live.

And Class of 2023: you have inherited the legacy of those seven founders on Gillespie Street. You have inherited the freedom that Lieutenant Colonel Johnson and so many others fought for. 

And now, it's your turn.

And it's your time.

The spirit of service is right here in your school motto: "Res Non Verba," which translates into "Deeds, not words."

And so you're about to walk across this stage to get your degree.

Your challenge is to make it mean more—much more—than the words on that parchment.

Your challenge is to match those words of promise with deeds of service.

To put your shoulder to the wheel.

To answer the call to serve.

And to make America a more perfect union.

Congratulations, class of 2023!


May God bless you.

May God bless your families.

And may God continue to bless the United States of America.

[Standing ovation]