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Commencement Address by The Honorable Richard J. Durbin, United States Senator from the State of Illinois

Knox 2015 Commencement Address by Senator Richard Durbin

Watch Senator Durbin's Commencement address »

To President Amott, the Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, fellow recipients of honorary degrees, thank you for this honor. Congratulations to the Knox College Class of 2016! To the proud parents, the grandparents, all the family and friends who stood by this class, cheered them on, and helped them get here today—this is your day as well. Let's give them a big round of applause as well.

Thank you, Knox College, for the degree you have bestowed on me today.

It means a great deal coming, as it does, from the same college that awarded Abraham Lincoln his only college degree. Of course, let's be honest, when we look at your previous Commencement speakers, we all know I'm only here because Jimmy Kimmel wasn't available.

I actually know someone who was a sophomore here at Knox in 2006, when Stephen Colbert made the Commencement address. This sophomore had to skip the ceremony because he had just started an internship and his new boss needed the student to drive him around southern Illinois that day. Terrible luck.

The reason I know that story is because I was that boss. And Brad Middleton was that intern. Brad is here today—only he's not an intern anymore. Brad? Stand up. Ladies and gentlemen, Brad Middleton, Knox College Class of 2008, is my chief education advisor in Washington. Brad is working in the United States Senate to advance the same principle that Knox College has embraced for 179 years: the idea that higher education is not a privilege reserved only for the well-off and the well-connected.

Brad is part of a proud tradition of Knox College graduates who have gone onto Washington. Just outside my Capitol office is the official portrait of Knox College grad Senator Hiram Revels, the first African American ever elected to the United States Congress—the man who, for a time in the post-Civil War era, occupied the seat once held by Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States.

And, of course, there's my friend, John Podesta: Class of 1971: X-Files fanatic, legendary political progressive, chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, and special advisor to a good friend of this College, President Barack Obama. So we're expecting great things from you, too, Class of 2016.

I can't think of a more tenacious, more courageous bunch of graduates. I mean, look at you all, wearing your robes! Usually when you're wearing a robe at 10:30 on a Sunday morning, it means you've given up. But you're fired up. Even more than that, you're prairie-fired up.

A world of dizzying change

Thank goodness! You need to hold on to that passion and determination. Because—at the risk of putting a damper on these festivities—the world is a little crazy right now. There is a whole lot of chaos out there. And you're going to need all of the courage and tenacity you can muster.

Now, I know that I am the only thing standing between you, your diploma, and a well-deserved celebration. So I don't want to keep you long. And I'm not the first of five Commencement speakers!

But there are three stories I want to share with you.

You might be familiar with Thomas Friedman. He is an author and columnist for The New York Times. He connects dots that most people can't even see. A few weeks ago, we shared some thoughts in my office. I asked him why the world seems to be in such a state of upheaval and what we can do about it. Here is some of what he said.

He started by saying that politics in America used to work. We used to talk to each other, identify big problems, and come to a consensus about how to fix things. That's who Americans were: idealists and pragmatists, all rolled up into one. The process could be frustratingly slow at times, but it worked.

Not anymore.

The way Tom Friedman sees it, America—and the entire world—are being rapidly reshaped by the three of the most powerful forces on Earth. He calls this "The Three M's": the market, Moore's Law, and Mother Nature.

"The market" refers to economic globalization—the ability of money and jobs to move almost anywhere.

"Moore's Law" is a theory first articulated by a man named Gordon Moore, who co-founded Intel. Fifty-one years ago, Gordon Moore predicted that computing power would basically double every two years and computers would become exponentially smaller and cheaper. Think about what you carry in your pocket. Many people thought that sounded like science fiction. At the time, mainframe computers were as large as classrooms and you had to be an accomplished scientist to know how to use one. Today, we all carry around more powerful computers in our pockets. Hand a toddler a computer and watch what happens and watch as they make sense of their basics.

The third force reshaping our world, as Tom Friedman sees it, is Mother Nature—especially population growth and climate change. Think about it: The globalization of the economy has helped to lift hundreds of millions of people—especially women—out of poverty in some of the poorest nations on Earth. It has also produced a vast array of easy-to-afford goods made around the world.

But, just like that moment when the focus of the American economy shifted from farms to factories, this economic transformation to global supply-and-demand has also caused some real pain. It has left millions of men and women in America and other developed nations without jobs or enough money to care for their families.

Lightning-fast advances in computer power—the spread of the internet and rapid digitalization—means that climbers atop Mount Everest enjoy excellent cell-phone service. Self-driving cars are taking to the roads. I rode in a Google car on a California expressway and was shocked when the driver turned around to talk to me. And poor children in sub-Saharan Africa can connect via the internet to the best libraries in the world. At the same time, technological advances are helping to topple old power structures as people become more aware—and less willing to accept—the vast inequalities of wealth and opportunity in the world. At its darkest, the technology of social media is used to spread hate and even to kill.

I don't care how many times a certain "Fair and Balanced" news channel denies it, climate change is real. It is accelerating. We are the first generation to see this with clarity and we may be one of the last to be able to do something about it. Chad Pregracke, in your small way, you are making a contribution to that effort. It is an urgent threat to the very existence of our planet. It is also an underlying cause of the turmoil in the Middle East and Africa and a significant cause of the world's migration crisis that we read about almost every single day.

Friday, I returned from a trip to South Africa where a drought threatens to throw one-fourth of its farmers into bankruptcy and displaced rural workers are crowding already over-populated cities. These crowded cities now house a population with the highest HIV infection rate on Earth and a public health system totally unready for further challenge.

Put all of these powerful forces together—markets, Moore's Law, and Mother Nature—and the world is changing at such a dizzying pace that it is stressing governments, transforming the nature of work, shrinking the middle class, and leaving many, many people anxious, angry, and vulnerable to demagogues and extremists.

And let's not overlook our own country, where a very highly publicized presidential candidate tries to parlay populist anger into the presidency. We have seen political candidates like him before, even here at Knox College.

Lincoln at Knox College

In 1858, an enormous crowd of people gathered around Old Main, just as we are now. The estimates range from 10,000 to 20,000 people. Those thousands of spectators heard candidate Abraham Lincoln say, more clearly than he ever had before, that slavery was not simply a political wrong, it was a moral evil that threatened the very existence of our nation.

In front of Old Main, Abraham Lincoln said that American democracy must rest on a principle greater than "might makes right." For our democracy to be more than simply mob rule, he said it must have a moral core. And that moral core, for Abraham Lincoln, was the revolutionary promise in the Declaration of Independence: All men—and women—are created equal.

Lincoln was calling on our divided and angry nation to seek those ties that bind us together. In his day, Lincoln said that America must look beyond the dividing issue of race. In his time, race was as personal and painful as our debates today over color, gender, religion, immigration, and sexual orientation.

Facing Lincoln in 1858 was a political candidate whom many—and none more than he himself—regarded as the most spellbinding speaker in America. He was known by his fans as "The Little Giant." His only governing principle was "popular sovereignty"—majority rule, whatever the majority wanted, it should have. It was an easy, appealing, populist message. It celebrated those things that divided us and avoided facing the hard choices over the essential values that were part of the creation of our nation.

Lincoln's opponent accommodated the voters' prejudices and fears with his plan for making America great again in his day.

Lincoln may have won his debates, but he lost that Senate election in 1858. Time showed us that Lincoln's loss was the world's gain. Had he won the Senate seat, he might never have been President.

And without President Abraham Lincoln's strength of character and his determination to make America stay true to its founding promises, the American experiment might well have ended on a Civil War battlefield.

Lincoln's lessons for today

For four years, you have walked this campus on historic ground where Lincoln taught us a timeless lesson. The lesson is this: Progress is a long march. It demands patience, perseverance, and flexibility. And at times, it requires the wisdom and humility to compromise.

Nowadays, "compromise" is a concept that has been wrongly scorned as capitulation, cowardice, or corruption. The truth is, in a democracy as large and diverse as ours, compromise is necessary and sometimes even the only way to move forward.

In Steven Spielberg's movie Lincoln with Daniel Day-Lewis, there is a scene where President Lincoln is talking with Congressman Thaddeus Stephens of Pennsylvania, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Stephens, as you know, was one of the most righteous, uncompromising abolitionists in all of American history—and thank goodness for him. In the movie, he tells President Lincoln that there is no use appealing to white people's sense of moral decency to end slavery and racial discrimination.

He says, "You know the inner compass that should direct the soul toward justice has ossified in white men and women, north and south, into utter uselessness through tolerating the evil of slavery."

Listen to what Lincoln said in reply. He says, "A compass, I learnt when I was surveying ... it'll point you True North from where you're standing, but it's got no advice about the swamps and desert and chasm that you'll encounter along the way." He goes on to say, "If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what's the use of knowing True North?"

You are fortunate to have a diploma from Knox College. Your education here is in many ways a primer for life's lessons that lie ahead—and one of the most important is how to be true to your principles and still survive those swamps of real-life conflict.

Many of you, Class of 2016, have spoken out boldly and bravely against gender discrimination and sexual violence. You have rallied against injustices in America's criminal justice system—injustices that disproportionately harm poor people, people with mental illness, and people of color. I commend you for that.

The old Jim Crow was wrong. And the new Jim Crow is wrong—and you are right, it must end. So let's bring Lincoln back to the campus for just a moment, and speak to an issue that tests all of us.

Criminal justice reform in America

In the 1970s, America declared a "war on drugs." In the 1980s, a new drug showed up, mostly in poor neighborhoods of color; it was called crack cocaine. We were told—incorrectly—that crack was far more powerful, lethal, abusive, and addictive than powder cocaine.

America panicked. Washington and Springfield joined in the chorus. Congress and state legislatures all around the country passed many "get tough" drug laws that we now know were based on a false premise.

This "war on drugs" hasn't stopped drug use in America. Just look at the opioid and heroin epidemic we're facing now. What the "war on drugs" has done is to fill America's jails and prisons—not with the drug kingpins it was supposed to take off the streets—but with thousands, tens of thousands, of non-violent drug offenders, mostly poor people of color.

The numbers tell the story: The United States of America has 5 percent of the world's population and nearly 25 percent of the world's prisoners. America today locks up Black people at a far higher rate than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.

And the price tag is considerable. It costs, on average, $30,000 a year to incarcerate a nonviolent offender in an American prison. The billions we spend each year on over-incarceration is money we don't have for community policing or alternatives to incarceration that would reduce recidivism far more and cost far less.

The money we spend incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders for years and decades is money we don't have for education, job training, or medical research to cure the disease of addiction.

It is money we don't have to expand access to good mental health care and effective, affordable substance-abuse treatment programs. Days ago, we learned that it was an opiate overdose that killed Prince. As awful as it is to lose his talent to addiction, the greater tragedy is that he is far from alone; 77 Americans die every day from opiate overdoses! We must change the way we treat pain and prevent addiction in this country.

One of the worst things we passed as part of the "war on drugs" was a 1986 federal law creating drastically harsher punishments for offenses involving crack cocaine than for powder cocaine. A person arrested with five grams of crack received the same mandatory minimum sentence as someone arrested with 500 grams of cocaine. Pharmacologically, they were the same. Our approach was tough, but it wasn't smart.

Six years ago, I introduced the Fair Sentencing Act. That law eliminated the 5-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack. And it dramatically reduced the "crack/powder" disparity.

And here's where a willingness to compromise was essential.

I wanted to eliminate the crack/powder disparity entirely. But I am only one Senator and you need at least 51 Senators to join me to accomplish anything. The best I could negotiate six years ago was to narrow the disparity from 100-to-one to 18-to-one. I hated the compromise. I didn't want to replace a law that was a hundred times wrong with one that was 18 times wrong. It was a matter of principle. But then I came to realize that if I only kept my eye on True North I would sink into the swamp of futility. I took 18-to-1.

The bipartisan U. S. Sentencing Commission recently analyzed the Fair Sentencing Act we passed six years ago. They found that, in the first four years after President Obama signed this law, almost 13,000 nonviolent crack offenders were individually reviewed and approved for sentence reductions. In total, they have been sentenced to 30,000 fewer years in prison. Eighty percent of these offenders are African American. Had I refused to compromise, many of those men and women would still be subject to the old, overly long sentences—in some cases longer than those we impose for the crime of murder—and costing our justice system more than a billion dollars.

Now, I am working with the Attorney General of the United States, Loretta Lynch, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, and two very conservative Republican Senators—Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah—on a larger criminal justice reform bill. We want to further reduce racial bias and over-incarceration.

Our bill is supported by a whole host of groups—everyone from the ACLU and the NAACP to our country's largest groups of prosecutors and police chiefs. A coalition that spans the political spectrum. Just recently, the current presidential candidate I referred to before denounced our efforts with some wild exaggerations and fabrications—which makes me even more convinced we're on the right track.

If we pass our bill—and there's a good chance we can get it done this year—it will be the most important criminal justice reform law passed in America in more than 40 years. Let me tell you one last story that might help explain why I believe in seeking allies, even among those with whom you disagree.

A few months ago, I met a man named Alton Mills. Alton grew up on the South Side of Chicago. His choices in life were very different from what many of us faced. Alton says there were only three things a young man could do in his neighborhood in the early 1990s: "Play sports, be a mechanic, or sell drugs."

He chose sports as his ticket. But a bad knee injury ended his days as a promising high school football star.

He tried to steer clear of the gangs and drugs. He got a job—then lost it. Then, for two years, he carried crack and cocaine for drug dealers. He was one of those kids, one of those runners. The kingpins were raking in thousands of dollars a week, while Alton earned a few hundred dollars a week.

Alton was arrested twice for possession of small amounts of crack. Then police arrested the entire ring. The high-rolling dealers Alton worked for received light sentences because they pled guilty and testified against their runner, Alton.

The judge looked at Alton's two earlier arrests and said, "My hands are tied. The law says three strikes and you're out. I have to sentence you to life in prison—no parole." Alton was 24 years old—just about your age—and he had never spent a day in jail. Now he was going away to spend the rest of his life in prison.

But Alton was lucky. He never lost hope. His mom and dad never gave up on him. And then God sent him an angel. I'm not kidding. He found an incredible, dedicated lawyer, a public defender, an attorney more interested in doing something meaningful than making money. Her name is MiAngel Cody. She fought for a second chance for Alton. She was unrelenting. She took her case to the highest office in the land.

Last year, President Obama commuted the remainder of Alton's sentence. This past January, after 22 years in federal prison, Alton Mills was able to come home to his family. This coming January, Alton will celebrate the first anniversary of his return to society by watching his daughter—another of the folks who never gave up on him—graduate from nursing school.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act that I am working on won't spare wrongdoers from paying for their crimes. But it will make our criminal justice system smarter and fairer. And it will end the "three strikes and you're out law" that sent Alton Mills—and thousands of others like him—to prison for life with no hope for parole. That will make all of the talking and negotiating, turning adversaries into friends, worth the effort. I found my True North on sentencing reform with the help of a lot of people.

One last point, and then I will close. Let me share another scene from the Spielberg's Lincoln. The scene takes place just before dawn. President Lincoln has walked the two blocks from the White House to the War Department's telegraph office, where he uses the very latest in communications technology in his day to communicate with his generals in the field.

The war is coming to a close and it has taken a terrible toll on the nation, and on the commander in chief. Hundreds of thousands have died. Lincoln has carried their deaths in his heart and his broken body shows the toll that burden has taken.

President Lincoln is talking with two young Army officers who are about your age. He asks those young officers a question, "Do you think we choose the times into which we are born? Or do we fit the times we are born into?"

Well, Class of 2016, I don't know how many of you would have chosen to be born in time to come of age at this moment, when the world is changing so fast it can make you dizzy and old ideas and institutions are being rattled to their cores. But what matters is: You are fitted to these times. With the education you have received, the values you bring to your life and your own moral compass, you can make this world better. As a wise man once said: You now have our permission to change the world.

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Printed on Friday, July 19, 2024