Editorial Board

Civil rights activist Vernon Jordan’s selection as Syracuse University commencement speaker breaks white-man-in-the-media mold

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Civil rights activist Vernon Jordan, who worked for the NAACP during the 1960s civil rights movement, will deliver the SU commencement speech in May.

The selection of civil rights activist Vernon Jordan as the keynote speaker for the Syracuse University Class of 2017’s commencement ceremony could be the start of a more diverse trend in speakers that taps into non-white men involved in the media — a pattern of speakers that has previously dominated these ceremonies.

Jordan is a refreshing pick for an SU commencement speaker not only because he is a person of color, but because he is an activist. Although he served as an adviser to former President Bill Clinton, Jordan isn’t just a big-shot coming to SU to give new graduates advice on how to succeed in life. He’s someone who played an important role in the 1960s civil rights movement and dedicated part of his life to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The perspective of a black man who fought for civil rights before joining the political sphere is a lens that is valuable now, during a time when the political climate in the United States is increasingly divisive following the election of President Donald Trump. Many young people are on edge with national politics, and hearing from Jordan could provide recent graduates with valuable insight as they begin their post-college lives. For this opportunity, the university should be commended for the relevance and timeliness of the speaker selection.

Jordan served as the Georgia field director for the NAACP and later as the director of the Voter Education Project of the Southern Regional Council. He said in a news release he is “eager” to share his thoughts on “our shared fight for justice.” Chancellor Kent Syverud added in the release he thinks Jordan will inspire SU students “as they set off to chart their own course in the world.”

Jordan may not be a familiar name to most SU seniors, but students should recognize that household-name public figures are not guarantees for inspiring commencement speeches. Jordan’s background in activism is what will make his speech matter, as opposed to someone who made a big name and an empire for himself, like last year’s commencement speaker, media mogul Donald Newhouse.

SU has a long history of white commencement speakers. In the past 51 years, only six speakers were people of color, including Jordan. And of the more than 100 speakers listed in SU archives since 1893, only 11 were women. With the selection of Jordan, SU is disrupting this telling trend — a disturbance that will hopefully become more of the norm in coming years.

It’s time for SU to select speakers who do not fit the white-man-in-the-media mold and utilize their diverse backgrounds to provide insight and inspire graduates. Jordan could be the start of this upward trend, and his selection could not be more timely.


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