Marian Wright Edelman: Resetting Our Nation's Moral Compass

The world can be a better place if this year's graduates learn the simple values of hard work and of putting yourself second.

Adapted from the commencement address delivered May 15, 2005 to Colgate University. Reprinted with permission from Colgate University.

I think our nation's moral compass needs resetting.

I think we've lost our sense of what is important as a people.

I think too many of our young people of all races and classes are growing up unable to handle life in hard places without hope and without steady moral compasses to navigate a world that is reinventing itself at an unpredictable pace both technologically and politically.

But despite this dazzling change, I believe there are some enduring values. I agree with the late Archibald MacLeish, who said that "There is only one thing more painful than learning from experience and that is not learning from experience."

Since I believe that it is the responsibility of every adult-parent, teacher, community, political, and professional leader-to make sure that you young people know what is important, what we think matters the most, I want to share a few of the lessons I shared with our children, my own three sons, some years ago.

Like them, you can take them or you can leave them, but I will just say them. First, I want to remind you, is that there is no free lunch in life. Don't feel entitled to anything you haven't sweat and struggled for. And help our nation understand that it's not entitled to world leadership based just on military or monetary might, or on the past, or on what we say, rather than how well we perform and meet changing world needs.


Democracy cannot be dictated or imposed. It must be modeled and nurtured.

For those African-American, Latino, Asian-American and Native-American graduates among you, I want you to remember that you can never take anything for granted-even with a Colgate degree. The new racism that is seeping up across our land is wrapped up in new euphemisms, in budget technicalities, in judicial and criminal justice choices, in racial disparities in health, and in education.

Frederick Douglass warned us it is still the same old snake.

I am deeply concerned that the black preschool boy today, born in 2001, has a one in three chance of going to prison before he reaches 30, that we've got 58,000 black males in prison and fewer of them-40,000-who graduate from college each year. A cradle to prison pipeline threatens decades of hard earned civil rights progress for poor children, especially poor males of color.

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Marian Wright Edelman
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