1963: At the height of the Cold War, President John F. Kennedy delivered an unapologetically dovish speech at AU’s June 10 commencement. “A Strategy of Peace” outlined Kennedy’s plan to curb nuclear arms and laid out a realistic plan for world peace. “No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable—we believe they can do it again,” he said. The speech set the stage for the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, which took effect in October 1963.
1976: “All of the people must be working all of the time to help free all of the people,” said Stokely Carmichael, honorary prime minister of the Black Panther Party, during an October 22 speech sponsored by AU’s Black student union. “In order to become free, we must become organized,” said the Freedom Rider and former chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. “You must identify the enemy, educate the people, lift the people’s consciousness, rid the people of fear, and motivate the people.”
1998: In the spirit of her late husband’s work, Coretta Scott King encouraged students to become “civil lobbyists,” fighting for racial equality. “Until African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans achieve a fair share of employment and educational opportunity in our society, our loftiest ideals about freedom and equality will be viewed as empty rhetoric,” she said on September 10. “We have to win freedom in every generation.”
2004: Archbishop Desmond Tutu knows about keeping the faith. The South African Nobel laureate and anti-apartheid activist delivered an inspiring speech to mark the Kennedy Political Union’s 35th anniversary on March 18, underscoring the need for hope and the push for justice, even in dark times. “The upholders of apartheid never thought that they would lose power. This is a moral universe—right and wrong matter. Whites in South Africa could not be free if the Blacks weren’t.”
2012: When President Bill Clinton accepted AU’s inaugural Wonk of the Year award on January 27, he spoke of “breathtaking” scientific advances in mapping the human genome. “By far the most important finding is that we are all at least 99.5 percent the same. As we look around the room today, every non-age-related difference you can see in each other, whether you’re tall or short, wide or narrow, whether you have some sort of disability, the color of your skin and the color of your eyes, is rooted in one half of a percent of your genome,” he said. “The biggest constraints on building the world you want are in our minds and hearts and in our imaginations.”
2015: The 44th president channeled the 35th during a speech on August 5 at SIS. Barack Obama advocated for an agreement that would prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. “John F. Kennedy cautioned here, more than 50 years ago, at this university, that ‘the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war.’ But it’s so very important. It is surely the pursuit of peace that is most needed in this world so full of strife. The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war,” Obama continued. “Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon.”
2017: The Taliban fighters who shot Malala Yousafzai on a school bus in Pakistan when she was just 15 may have wounded her, but they didn’t break her. “The terrorists had actually made a big mistake,” said AU’s Wonk of the Year on September 25. “I used to think about getting attacked or being harmed. But I had gone through this already, and now I knew that nothing can stop me.” An advocate for female education and the youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize, Yousafzai said, “There’s nothing special in my story, but only that no one stopped me. Girls can do anything.”
2019: Stacey Abrams—the first woman to lead either party in the Georgia General Assembly and the first Black woman nominated to run for governor by a major party in any state—has shattered more than a few glass ceilings. When she addressed SPA’s Class of 2019 on May 11, she encouraged grads to make history of their own. “When you aim high, when you stretch beyond your easiest conceptions, the temptation to pare back your ambitions will be strong. But hear me clearly: Do not edit your desires. Want what you want, regardless of how big the dream. You may have to get there in stages, but the journey is worth the work.”