Booker Urges University Graduates: “Tell Your Truth” and “Use Your Power”

HONORARY MEMBER, CLASS OF 2018: U.S. Senator Cory Booker, keynote speaker at Princeton University Class Day on Monday, puts on a 2018 jacket after being named an honorary member of the senior class. (Photo Courtesy of Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite)

By Donald Gilpin

Speaking at Princeton University Class Day on Monday, U.S. Senator Cory Booker urged the 2018 graduates to lead lives of humility and gratitude, and to “tell your truth, embrace the world, and use your power every day.”

A New Jersey Senator since 2014 and widely touted as a Democratic presidential candidate for 2020, Booker said, “I want to impart to you all that you are powerful. Power is not measured by your position or titles or wealth. People give up their power by not realizing that they have it in the first place.”

Rejecting the “great man or woman theory of history,” he continued, “The nation was shaped and formed by the people you’re never going to read about in history books. One decision by one person on one day ripples out into the community. Never forget that the biggest thing you can do on almost every day is often just a small act of kindness, decency, love, or caring.”

As the keynote orator at an event featuring several student speakers and honoring numerous student prize winners, Booker interwove his exhortations to the students with the story of his personal journey from growing up in Northern New Jersey to eventually serving as mayor of Newark then U.S. Senator. “Don’t forget where you came from,” he said. “Don’t forget that the title does not make the man or the woman. The man or woman must make the title.”

As he was constantly reminded by his parents while growing up, Booker reminded the Princeton seniors, “Life’s not about the degrees you get but the services you give.” He mentioned his undergraduate degree from Stanford University, a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University and his law degree from Yale University, but stated, “I got my PhD on the streets of Newark.”

He noted that he has a map of Newark on the wall of his Senate office in Washington, adding, “I love this state, and I love her largest city.”

Booker used his life story as an example of the power and the ripple effect of seemingly small acts. He described sitting in the office of Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, “one of the bravest men in all of the Civil Rights Movement. A hero to me, a giant. The man is just so humble. He is so kind, and he is trying to tell me that I am the manifestation of the dreams he had. He was a teacher to me about what is power. It’s not in titles. It’s about the truth he lives every day.”

Booker continued, “The true definition of patriotism is not how loud you sing the national anthem, or the pin you have on. You cannot love your country unless you love your country’s men and women. Your first language must always be love. This is what power is about.”

The second part of his story went back to 1965, before Booker was born, when a young Northern New Jersey lawyer sitting on his living room couch watching TV saw Lewis and other civil rights demonstrators in Selma beaten with billy clubs by Alabama state troopers. He and his partner couldn’t go to Alabama, but they decided, “why don’t we do the best we can with what we have where we are,” Booker related. “They did not allow their inability to do everything to undermine their determination to do something.”

And in 1969, the year Booker was born, that lawyer helped Booker’s parents to break through racist segregation practices in Harrington Park, New Jersey and buy the house where young Booker grew up.

“I would not be here today if it weren’t for that chain reaction,” he told the graduates. “One man sitting on the couch can make a difference. To do nothing is to contribute to the injustice. If you show up every day, give a little every day, care a little, heal a little, listen a little, love a little every day, you are powerful. Embrace the world with your spirit and your truth.”