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 Message of Expectations': Remarks by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III at South Carolina State University's Commencement (As Delivered)

Well, good morning, Bulldogs!

[Crowd responds, "Good morning!"]

I know it's raining, but I don't think there's anybody out there. 


Let's try that again. Good morning, Bulldogs!

[Crowd responds with more energy: "Good morning!"]

Alright. That's more like it. 

You know, it's great to be at South Carolina State. And I'm not just saying that because my sister-in-law is a graduate of SC State. 

[Cheers and applause]

This truly is a good-looking crowd. 

Now, I know that I am standing between you and your diplomas, and some other things. And as Congressman Clyburn said, I am a former general, so I know when I'm outnumbered. 


So I'm going to try to keep this pretty brief.

[Cheers and applause]
Yeah, yeah, I'm with you.


I believe that a good commencement speaker should be tall — but a good commencement speech should be short.

[Cheers and laughter]

Congressman Clyburn, thank you for that generous introduction. It is an honor to be here with you. You've been a personal inspiration and a true friend. And sir, you are a paragon of leadership. You've always fought to make America's promise real for every citizen. And that's why, just last week, President Biden awarded you America's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Let's give him a round of applause.


And sir, you met your late wife, Ms. Emily, right here in Orangeburg. And you both gave so much to this university. Today, the Dr. Emily England Clyburn Honors College carries on in her legacy. And the James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center will prepare students for great careers that will keep America moving forward. 

So Congressman, thanks for everything that you and Ms. Emily have done for SC State and for our democracy. 

President Conyers, thanks for leading your alma mater so well. And thanks for all that you've given to the Department of Defense, including your 28 years of service in the United States Army. 

Trustees, distinguished faculty, and dedicated staff — thanks for doing so much for South Carolina State. 

And I know you already paid a special tribute to your parents, but I want you to give them another round of applause.


And I know that everyone knows that tomorrow is Mother's Day, right?


Sunday is Mother's Day. I'm living in the future, guys.


Sunday is Mother's Day, so don't forget. And let's give our mothers and grandmas a round of applause.

[Cheers and applause]

And that brings me to you — the Class of 2024! 2024, let's make some noise! 

So graduates, we are here to celebrate you and your achievements. Your class had an especially challenging road to graduation day. 

In 2020, as the pandemic erupted, your freshman class was less than half the normal size. It was unprecedented, and it was hard. But you dug deep. You stuck by each other. And you made it to today. 

Now, many of you are the first in your family to graduate from college. 

[Cheers and applause]

That is a phenomenal achievement. And many of you have balanced school with work, with raising a family, and with giving back to this community. 

You can call it grit. You can call it hustle. But around here, we call it Bulldog Tenacity.

[Cheers and applause]

Class of 2024, you have worked incredibly hard to get here. And we are very proud of you. And you should be proud of yourselves. 

Now, I've got to give a special shout-out to the South Carolina State Army ROTC program. 


The legendary Bulldog Battalion!

[Cheers and applause]

Over more than 75 years, this ROTC program has produced more than 2,000 U.S. military officers. In 1972, South Carolina State became one of the first HBCUs to enroll female Army ROTC cadets. And all six of those women became colonels. 


And believe it or not, this university has launched the careers of more than 20 generals and admirals. And we may have some future generals with us in the crowd today. So let's congratulate the newest Second Lieutenants in the U.S. Army! 

[Cheers and applause]

So as I said, I'm going to keep it brief. So I want to share three things with you today and then I'll let you get back to celebrating.  

First, as the old guy, I'll explain what I've learned about the power of education. Second, I'll say a word about the importance of giving back. And finally, I'll leave you with what Congressman Clyburn has called a "Message of Expectations." 

So, number one: education gives you the power to make change, even when it's hard, and to help America live up to its full promise. 

You know, I've lived that. I grew up in Georgia in the time of Jim Crow. Our local public high school had long been whites-only. And when I was a teenager, I became one of the first Black students to integrate it. 

Those were hard days. Painful days. Ugly days. 

But you know, I am still moved by the memory of every person who fought to make sure that I could get a good public education — the teachers, the officials, and the neighbors. 

And I still remember their determination and their decency.

And I still carry forward their lesson, which is that living up to this country's founding values means bringing everyone along, and leaving no one out, and drawing on the full talents of all of the American people. 

And I am honored to stand here with you today as America's first Black Secretary of Defense. 

[Cheers and applause]

Now, I doubt that the people that were trying to keep me out of that school imagined that they were blocking the education of a future four-star general and a cabinet official. 

But you never know which kid is going to grow up to be Bob Johnson or Oprah or Chadwick Boseman or Stacey [Abrams] or Barack Obama or Kamala Harris. 

You never know what we lose when we leave someone out. 

And so we don't have one American to spare. We don't have one citizen to squander. 

And that means that we need to keep working together to knock down barriers, to level the playing field, and to let everybody compete to win. 

You know, I saw that in action at West Point. 

As a cadet, I was thrown in with people from all walks of life. I was a Southern kid far from home. But my teachers taught me more than math or military strategy. They believed in us. 

And I was lucky to have educators — including some very special Black mentors — who showed us all how to become a team, and to turn our differences into strengths, and to turn hard work into results. 

And they showed us that leadership isn't just about what you do. It's about who you are. 

So here's my second message. 

Your education at South Carolina State has already changed your lives. 

And it'll keep making possible a number of new things. 

It has already shaped your character and equipped you to excel. 

And that won't stop.

For nearly 130 years, South Carolina State has produced the skilled leaders that our country needs, in agriculture, education, engineering, and much more. 

You know, South Carolina State trains more Black nuclear engineers than any school in the country. 


And the National Security Agency has designated South Carolina State as a center of academic excellence in cyber defense. 


This university educates its graduates for the jobs of the future. 

And it has prepared you for the challenges ahead. 

And I know that you've heard President Conyers say, "You can get there from here!"

And that has always been the story of America's HBCUs. 

Generation after generation, they teach excellence, and they kick open the doors of opportunity. 

As President Biden has noted, HBCUs help produce 40 percent of America's Black engineers, and 50 percent of Black lawyers, and 70 percent of Black doctors and dentists, and 80 percent of Black judges.  

And I can't put it any better than retired Army Major General Abe Turner, a member of the Class of 1976 whom I've proudly served with in the military. 

HBCUs, he says, provide "an opportunity to do goodness, and to prosper, and to provide a service to the nation that otherwise might have been missed by larger universities."

So Class of 2024, we need your "service to the nation." 

So find ways to make change. To contribute. And to be a part of something bigger than yourself. 

As you heard Congressman Clyburn say, I had a brief, 41-year career in the U.S. Army. 

And we definitely need some of you to stand up, and salute, and defend the United States in uniform. 

But we also need all of you to give back in your own ways. 

And you can do that as a teacher. As a doctor. As a firefighter. 

Or by joining the PTA. Or by building a great business in your community. Or by serving as an usher in your church. Or by leading a Girl Scout troop. Or by running for city council. Or by registering people to vote. 

You'll find your own path. 

But in times like these, civic engagement is not optional.   

And that brings me to my third and final message for you. It's what Congressman Clyburn calls "a Message of Expectations."

You know, the Congressman also grew up in the segregated South. 

And he always had big dreams. 

But one day, a well-meaning neighbor warned young James to keep his high ambitions to himself. So his mother called him to the kitchen table. And she looked him in the eye. And she told him, "Don't pay any attention to what that lady said." 

His mother said that she and his father expected — and insisted — that James and his brothers would push themselves to achieve more than their parents. 

That was her Message of Expectations. 

And Class of 2024, that message is yours as well. 

It won't always be easy. But we need you out there. 

So you've got to keep putting in the work. To keep doing the reps and sets. 

You know, my friend and mentor, the late Colin Powell, addressed the graduates of South Carolina State back in 2011. And he said, "No matter what your past is, no one owes you a thing. You have to perform to get ahead."

But you know what? You've already proven that you're going to perform. 

Class of 2024, you were tested. And you overcame. And you made it here today. 

So you've shown, in the words of your school song, that you are "Ready all to do and dare!" 

And that's the spirit of South Carolina State. 

Now, you're graduating in challenging times. Divided times. But so many things still bring us together as Americans. Our Constitution. Our democracy. The rule of law. The new BeyoncĂ© album. 


Still with me out there. I got you.


Ladies and gentlemen, we don't get to choose our times. But we do get to shape our times. 

And in a democracy, that is especially relevant and it's a special responsibility for every citizen. And for every member of this graduating class. 

You know, in May 1964, the great playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the author of "A Raisin in the Sun," spoke to a group of talented young Black Americans. And she said, "The nation needs your gifts!" 

And so Class of 2024: the nation needs your gifts. 

The nation needs your resilience. 

And the nation needs your service. 

So congratulations, Class of 2024! 

Let's hear it for the Bulldog Nation! 

[Cheers and applause]

May God bless you. May God bless our troops. And may God continue to bless the United States of America. 

Thank you very much.

[Cheers and applause]