Maya Wiley Delivers Keynote at New College of Florida Alternative Commencement

On Thursday, May 18, Maya Wiley — president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights — delivered the keynote at the alternative commencement for New College of Florida, hosted by graduating seniors. Here are her remarks as delivered:

My name is Maya Wiley, and my pronouns are she, her — and I am here to use yours.

When I received the invitation to come to speak to this new commencement, I knew that there was nothing, nothing in this world that was going to keep me from you.

And while I could say that I am standing here as a civil rights lawyer, while I could say that I’m standing here because I lead the nation’s largest and oldest civil rights coalition, while I could say that I am here because I, too, know what it means to be a faculty member, I’m here because I’m also a mom. And I am a mom who has two amazing offspring, both of whom are in colleges that respect their right to be who they are.

And I stand here feeling the pride that I know your parents are feeling right now, because I feel it, too. Because I know the pride your professors feel, because I feel it, too. And because I know the pride of your peers, because I parent, two. And I want you to know that it is not lost on any of us, no matter where we live in this country, just how inspiring you are and the achievements you’ve made because you climbed a mountaintop called COVID. Am I right?

As Audre Lorde said, what makes us strong are the things that require us to be strong for. And you have arrived at this moment because you have had to be strong in the face of COVID. You have had to be strong at a time when you had to figure out how to learn under the most challenging and scary conditions. And then, on top of all of that, all of that, you have had to be strong in the face of a few who would tell you that you can’t read what you want to read, that you can’t speak what you want to speak, that you should get in line with an ideology that is not yours and call that — call that — freedom.

I’m going to read you a sentence: It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13. Okay, this isn’t a test. You passed all your tests. But do you know the book that this sentence is from? Fifth best public college in the country. There you have it. Honors college, New College. You are correct.

But I want to tell you where this sentence appeared last year, and I’m going to read you the whole passage: It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13. And the powers in charge of Florida’s public university system have declared the state has the unfettered authority to muzzle its professors in the name of freedom. This is positively dystopian. This is positively dystopian. And these words come from a federal judge who had to hear the case against stopping woke.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t know the college or university whose mission is to tell you to be asleep. But I will tell you this part of the story, the story in Orwell’s book. There’s a thing in that story called Newspeak. It is the totalitarian regime’s way of saying, we’re going to discourage you thinking the way you want to think by controlling your words. And what’s an example of this Newspeak? You couldn’t say bad in the book. You had to say ungood. Ungood.

Well in Florida, the Stop Woke Act had the effect of even getting a textbook publisher to remove the story of racism from Rosa Parks’ fight for the ability to say, I, too have the right to sit at the front of the bus and not be treated as less than a full human being and citizen of this country. I think that’s Orwellian. It is in the face of a state that had said you can’t say gay through elementary school and now through 12th grade. That sounds like Newspeak to me.

So why are we so inspired? It is because you have had to be strong for the right to have a free education, for the right to be able to develop your own sense of self, for the thing that the founders of this fragile, and very fragile democracy, getting more fragile, thought was necessary to preserve the Republic and it was an education. Even considering that the country should have a national free university system. Those are the very founders whose words are now being turned against us for the value that is freedom is now indoctrination in the name and service of an ideology of a few.

But your strength — your strength — has not only mattered to you finding your full selves and your full voices and protecting it, because what you have done is stood up and said: I’m going to speak. And in the 26 states that have bans on woke, bans on books, 1600 titles, 80 percent of whom either talk about the experience of being LGBTQ in this country or have a protagonist or major character who is a person of color, you’re speaking up to the dozen states that are now copycatting the don’t say gay law. You are not just standing for yourselves. You’re standing for all of us.

And I know that you have had to do that in the face of being called names by those you are supposed to be able to trust — called trustees for a reason. And instead of embracing you and saying, whether I agree with you or not, I want you to find your voice. That instead of saying that you got called names like druggies and weirdos. Well, I want to tell you that one of the reasons we celebrate you is you are now in the full bloom of yourselves, and this flowering cannot be plucked. The petals cannot be taken from you. And you come and walk in an alumni tradition that tells those who tell you to be asleep and to get in line and to use Newspeak. They tell all of us that the epithets used against you, the slurs, the dehumanization, does not speak to who the New College has been or who you demand it continue to be.

And I want yes, and I want to remind you the ranks that tonight you now join. And it is a joyous ranks. It is a beautiful one. It is one that represents all that is good in this country. And it starts, I’m going to start, with Jose Diaz-Balart, the first Cuban American to have a network news show, someone whose show I am privileged to have been on, someone I can tell you is a lovely human being who cares about democracy. And he is no druggie or weirdo. His brother, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute and a Republican, is a graduate of New College. And Victoria Kolakowski is a judge of the Alameda County Superior Court. And she is a proud trans woman. I will not stop without naming X Gonzalez, who we will quote here tonight in saying: We call BS.

But I want to use the words of another alum who described the experience of coming and being a student at New College: I do feel pretty confident that had I gone to some larger state university, I would not have felt socially challenged and called on to question myself and answer the white nationalist community I was standing up for. The students weren’t there to just get their degrees and move on. They were there to pursue truth and to try to understand society and challenge everything and be really rigorous about what they were studying. Derek Black was a white supremacist. His mother was literally the ex wife of David Duke, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. He came here a racist, and he left here a human.

And if that’s what the state fears, then we say you do not stand for the democracy that is the United States of America because we stand for a country that says we are equal. We stand for a country that says we are free. We stand for a country that says we are free to be who we are, to love who we choose to love, to worship the way we choose to worship. And to say: The words of Adolf Hitler will not live here. Those words, those words said: If you capture the youth, you control the future. And we are here to say we celebrate you because we know you are the authors of a future that no Adolf Hitler wannabe can ever create for us.

And before I close, I am going to close with words from my tradition and my history, which are the words of Dr. Martin Luther King. But I first want to give you the context. This is from his last speech the night before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. The speech where everyone knows the line, ‘I have been to the mountaintop.’ Everyone knows that line, right? And what felt prophetic about his willingness to stand up and be strong for racial justice, for an inclusive society, for being woke. But what he also said is, he said if I was at the beginning of creation and the Lord gave me the ability to say where I would be and could be at any time in history, I would want to visit the pharaohs and the pyramids of Egypt. I would want to go to Mount Olympus. I would want to sit with Plato and Socrates. I would want to see the Roman Empire at its height, and I would want to be at the table when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

And he talked about this traveling through history of the world — seeing it, witnessing it, understanding it. And then he said this. He said, but if I had the ability, I would beg the Lord to let me be in the second half of the 20th century. And he said, I know that sounds strange because these are dark times. They were scary times. They were a time when he did not know that the next day he would be shot dead for demanding equality, demanding an end to the war in Vietnam, demanding that sanitation workers got a fair wage, that those would bring his assassination.

But what he said stands true today. He said: It’s only in the darkness that we can see the stars. And when I stand here, all I see are stars. So thank you for lighting up our future.