I was born in 1962 and witnessed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., at the age of 6. My family and I watched the looting and the riots in Washington, DC, from the relative safety of our home in Appomattox, VA. I heard my parents talk about “the struggle.” I heard them say the names: Reverend King, Malcolm X, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy. Their pictures were on the walls in my house. I actually thought they were my uncles. My dad looks like Senator Robert Kennedy and my mom like Lena Horne. These iconic men looked like all my family members.
As a young girl, I thought wow my Uncle Martin Luther King, Jr., has just been assassinated. What does that mean? I went to the dictionary and looked up “assassinate,” and learned it meant murder (of an important person) in a surprise attack for political or religious reasons. So, I said, “My God – my uncle Dr. Martin Luther King, and my uncle President John F. Kennedy, and my uncle Senator Robert Kennedy, and my cousin Malcolm X have all been assassinated.” As a young child, those memories were embedded in the core of my spirit and all that I am and all that I have become as a leader; a global leader who has walked the earth as a champion for racial reconciliation and social justice and health for all in more than 160 nations.
I am still on the battlefield.
In 1980, on the night I was crowned the first black homecoming queen of Appomattox High School, we witnessed a reaction not unlike what we are seeing across the United States right now. My selection did not sit well with some folks and the National Guard and state police had to come out to protect us. My family and I feared we would not survive the night. We received more death threats than we could count.
I knew I had won the title when the police said, “Follow us,” and I was taken down a tunnel underneath the football field – a tunnel the Confederacy had built during the Civil War. We emerged in the opponents’ locker room and immediately the whispering started, “She’s black,” they said in disbelief.
“Yes, I’m black and it looks like I’m going to be the queen, but I might be a dead queen,” I replied.
And all those black football players took a knee and said, “You are the queen.” Then they told the police, “We will walk her out with us. We will protect her.” My classmate Ed McCoy, the homecoming king, said, “I am ready to die, too.”
I told him, “We are not dying tonight. When they call my name, let’s put on a show, let’s do a hop and a skip. Let’s dodge the kill shot.” And when the announcement was made, sure enough, the dust flew. The crowd went wild, but not in a good way. I could see my parents in the stands. They looked scared to death. I was hustled into a waiting car and driven home.
All night, my Dad and I sat on our front porch and waited. We waited for the KKK to come get us. We waited for the burning cross to appear in our yard. But by daybreak, nobody had come. There was no cross. At that moment, I made a decision. I told my father, “I’m going to get off this porch and change the world.” And that’s exactly what I did.
I went to UVA because I liked Thomas Jefferson and was intrigued with his life. But there was also a culture at UVA where some white people didn’t want to speak to you, where faculty wouldn’t call on black students. Instead of fighting that culture with a wartime identity, I decided to adopt a peacetime identity. I opted to become a bridge. I was the first female president of the Class of 1985. I was in the Raven Society. I tutored students in African-American affairs. I helped African-American students excel.
The bottom line: I stayed calm in the midst of a storm.
In 1996, I become a White House Fellow. I spent a year working with all kinds of people with all kinds of perspectives. We worked to build relationships – to build that bridge – and it prepared me to go forward as a leader. In the words of our founder, John Gardner, “One exemplary act may affect one life, or even millions of lives. All those who set standards for themselves, who strengthen the bonds of community, who do their work creditably and accept individual responsibility, are building the common future.”
Announcing the establishment of the program in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “A genuinely free society cannot be a spectator society.” Inspired by John Gardner, President Johnson’s intent was to draw individuals of exceptionally high promise to Washington for one year of personal involvement in the process of government. In return, LBJ expected the Fellows to “repay that privilege” when they left by “continuing to work as private citizens on their public agendas.” He hoped that the Fellows would contribute to the nation as future leaders.
It is remarkable how the words, and the hopes, of our visionary creators ring true today. “Freedom and responsibility, liberty and duty. That’s the deal.” John Gardner, in one short phrase, captured the essence of the White House Fellows Program and who we are as alumni.
Right now, we see our nation and all the nations crying out for help. What part might you play in responding to that cry and helping our country to heal? How can you shape a nation and make the world a better place to live?
I will close by quoting one of my favorite scriptures, Micah 6:8. The ancient Romans used to say “Solvitur ambulando,” which means it is solved by walking. So often, we do not know where our journey will take us. But, in walking toward our future, truths are revealed. It would be easier to postpone decisions until we have all the answers. Back in 1980, it would have felt more comfortable to stay on the porch until the road before me was paved. But sometimes we must pause, be humble, be calm, embrace the adventure, and walk.
Stay calm in the midst of the storm, members of my Tribe, Stephanie, but don’t stay on the porch. Solvitur ambulando.