In a passionate graduation address, the North Carolina native expressed deep concerns about the future of his home state.
Elon University’s Commencement speaker, David Gergen, departed from the tradition of showering graduates with praise and advice to discuss his concerns about the future of North Carolina, his home state.
Gergen is senior political analyst for CNN and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. He also served as advisor to four U.S. presidents and is founding chair of Elon University School of Law’s advisory board.
Gergen told a crowd of about 12,000 people at Commencement that “forces of political extremism” have asserted themselves in North Carolina, damaging the state’s reputation and putting citizens at risk.
“Enough is enough,” declared Gergen. “For those of us who have stayed on the sidelines, it is time to stand up and be counted. It is time to raise our voices against this darkness. Indeed, it is time for fellow citizens of all stripes – white and black; young and old; native and newcomer; men, women and people of chosen gender – everyone – to join forces and preserve the best of who we are as a people.”
Gergen said he was privileged to grow up in North Carolina and to watch its rise to prosperity through the second half of the 20 century and into the 21st century. He praised visionary leaders in the state, including Governors Terry Sanford, Jim Hunt, Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin, along with prominent figures Bill Friday, Skipper Bowles and Dan Blue.
“They stood up for a New South, one that honored the rights of all while listening and respecting voices of disagreement,” Gergen said. “They believed in moderation, reaching across the aisle, building consensus, and the importance of good will. North Carolina won the respect of the nation.”
Gergen praised courageous civil rights advocates in North Carolina and elsewhere who broke down walls between races. “Growing up, I remember how often I was told by white elders that black folks liked to live on the other side of town, going to rundown schools and living through indignities. The civil rights movement helped me to see that was a pack of lies.”
With pride, Gergen detailed the state’s progress, with Charlotte positioned as the second biggest banking center in the country, Chapel Hill as one of the best places to live, Raleigh-Durham abuzz with innovation and Greensboro emerging as a hot destination for design.
“That’s why so many native North Carolinians have proclaimed that we are proud to be from here and others have been proud to bring their families and businesses. Or at least, that’s where many of us thought we were until just a few years ago.
“Then suddenly, without warning, dark clouds arrived. The moderation that characterized our state – the belief among Republicans and Democrats that we are all in this together – gave way to a new, angrier, extremist politics.”
Gergen cited a list of actions by the state legislature over the past several years. “The signals coming out of the State Capitol in Raleigh have sent a thunderous message rolling out across America: that North Carolina is no longer a pioneer in advancing people of color, people who are gay, people living on the margins. Instead, many here want to go back, far back to a darker time.”
In discussing the state’s House Bill 2 action, which has come to be known as the “bathroom bill,” Gergen said the state has broken two cardinal rules of politics – “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and to leave as much power as possible in the hands of local people.
“There have to be creative solutions – I can tell you there are creative solutions,” Gergen said. “And where all roads point to, and what our ultimate destination should be, and that is repeal HB-2!”
Gergen said the differences are not Democrat vs. Republicans nor liberal vs. conservative, but are “between moderates and extremists.”
“My friends, we dare not go back here in this state. No. We need to “take North Carolina back!”
Gergen called on graduates to “get in the arena, join the fight, serve and lead,” telling stories of North Carolinians who made a difference throughout history. “May I plead with you: please don’t stay on the sidelines as America struggles to find the best path forward. Come off the bench and get into the arena. You will find that many will disagree with you, just as many here will have disagreed with me. But don’t let your disagreements make them your enemies. Find common ground, work hard to respect the views of others. You will get knocked down and there will be severe disappointments. Embrace the fact that change is hard. But know this: if you pour your heart and soul into rebuilding a better state and nation, you will look back one day and find an inner satisfaction, a pride that you answered the call to service and leadership.”