CNN Anchor Don Lemon to Class of 2018: ‘You are the new black power movement’


By Vickie G. Hampton

For the more than 800 graduates poised to leave the hallowed halls of Clark Atlanta University to put their education to the test in the real world, there was first the matter of a cautionary tale to be considered from convocation orator, CNN anchor and correspondent Don Lemon.

Lemon warned the graduates to not listen to those who believe “the beginning of the end is here.”

“We don’t move forward by preparing to crash,” he told the crowd of nearly 8,000 who gathered in the Panther Stadium for the 8 a.m. commencement convocation.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not underestimated – still at 52 years old—that I’m not underappreciated and undervalued – and still I rise, still I rise, still I rise.

“And you want to know why? Because I have no choice, and you have no choice. Even with everything I’ve said, there are no excuses for you and no excuses for me, either.”

Lemon told the newly minted CAU alumni that they do not embark on “this heroic journey” alone.

“You’re not going out there on your own. You’re going with us,” he said. “And change isn’t just on your shoulders, it’s on our shoulders. And you cannot give up … because if you give up, you give up on all of us. When you abandon hope or descend into depression, you deprive us of the light that only you can shine.”

Citing the “Me, Too” and the gun control movement galvanized by high school students in Parkland, Florida, Lemon assured the graduates that they too must recognize their own movement.

“You are the new black power movement. Hear me,” he said. “You are the living history. You are living a revolution.

“I know a revolution when I see one,” he said.

Instead of an ending, Lemon said commencement is the beginning of a new beginning.

“We have dreamed about a different world where we live a life of quality, opportunity and justice. But those dreams are in the past.

“It’s time for the second act, where dreams become reality, possibility becomes probability, and opportunity become change, ideas become action,” he said.

Lemon, along with television writer and producer, Kenya Barris, and former UNCF executive and television personality Billy Suber Aaron all received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters.

Earlier, President Johnson drew a thread that connected the three honorary degree recipients. Aaron, who was the first African-American woman to host a television show in the Southeast, contributed to Lemon’s and Barris’s success in their areas of broadcasting, he said.

Barris, creator of the acclaimed ABC television series “Black-ish” and co-writer of the 2017 blockbuster, “Girls Trip,” was also recognized for the $1 million he and wife, Rainbow Barris, donated for scholarships to mass media arts and biology majors.

“Before I got ‘Black-ish’ going, I sold 19 pilots, none of which could ever get off the ground. It was because I hadn’t found my voice,” said Barris. “In order to find my voice, I had to really dip back into what I learned here at CAU—and that was that I had one.

“The universality of any message is in its specificity,” he continued. “As much as they try to tell us we need to sound like everyone else—we need to sound like us. And that’s what I learned here—that being me was okay.”

The gift – which will be named the Kenya and Rainbow Barris Annual Scholarship Award -- kicks off the University’s 30th anniversary yearlong celebration, which officially starts on July 1, 2018, and will include a host of national events. Half of the gift, $500,000, will go to support mass media arts majors, with the remaining half going to students who major in biology.

According to President Johnson, the Barrises, who both graduated in 1996, are the University’s top alumni donors of the consolidated CAU. “This is an anchor gift to ignite alumni giving across the country,” he added.

Billye Suber Aaron, a 1960 graduate of Atlanta University, was so moved by the Barris’s generosity that she began her greetings by asking the crowd to applaud the couple. 

“I want all CAU students and students who attended a black school to stand and applause,” she requested. “This is a tremendous investment in our alma mater.”

She went on to encourage the graduates: “Do your job so well that no one living, no one dead, and no one yet to be born can do it better,” she said, warning that they would face stiff competition.

Other donations acknowledged during the ceremony was the establishment of the Charles S. Ackerman Memorial Scholarship, which will cover tuition for 10 students each fall up to the 2020-21 academic year, and a $100,000 pledge by the CAU Sigma Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.—an important fund-raising initiative that President Johnson said will hopefully spread across the entire Greek system.