Commencement speaker Andrew Lack, chairman of NBC News and MSNBC, receives honorary doctorate
By Ayesha K. Mustafaa
Tougaloo College held its commencement ceremony May 1 and the institution’s motto – “Where History Meets the Future” – rang true throughout the day.
“The best way to predict the future is to create it … Eleanor Roosevelt once said the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams. Our past has happened, learn from it,” said Way-nesha E. Blaylock, 2016 class valedictorian, as she addressed her fellow graduates. The keynote commencement speaker was Andrew Lack, chairman of NBC News and MSNBC.
Tougaloo, established in 1869 by the American Missionary Association of New York, was commissioned to educate freedmen and their children who were recently freed slaves.
In 1871, the Mississippi Legislature granted the institution a formal charter under the name Tougaloo University. It remained predominantly a teacher training school until 1892. Then in 1916, the name changed officially to Tougaloo College.
A campus entrenched in history has reminders in every direction that quietly speak to the past. The oldest structure, The Manison, was constructed in 1860 and was home of John W. Boddie, a wealthy cotton planter. Woodworth Chapel was built by students in 1901, and the college holds The Civil Rights Library and Archives as well as the Medgar Wiley Evers Museum, which is the former home of the Evers family.
During the ceremony, Tougaloo President Beverly Hogan announced that 50 percent of Tougaloo’s graduates were honors students; 120 have been accepted to graduate schools, and students logged 10,000 hours of community service.
Two meritorious leadership awards were presented during the ceremony to two alumni of Tougaloo. Mavis Parkman James, a 1971 economics and math major, who furthered her studies at Fordham University in New York, was honored.
Also honored was Marion McNeal Tresvant, of the class of 1978 and a biology major, who furthered her studies at the University of Houston. She is the chief executive director of Perry Lee Home Health Care Services, Inc.
Showing her support for her alma mater, Hogan announced that Tresvant made a $1 million donation to the college.
Tresvant expressed her appreciation while giving a shout out to her son who was graduating from Tougaloo, Jamal Marcus Tresvant, a business administration and accounting major.
Lack, who received an honorary doctorate from Tougaloo, congratulated the class of 2016 along with all of their “long suffering relatives who supported them.”
Lack used Tougaloo’s theme as he iterated the weekly layout of where students go to on campus to be entertained as well as where they give their service, recently sending 120,000 bottles of water to Flint, Mich., to help those residents and its mayor, Karen Weaver, who is also a Tougaloo graduate.
“I feel Mississippi in my bones, swayed by the music that is honest and sexy, where the nights are pitch black. As I understand the history of Mississippi, I’ve become more invested in its future,” Lack said. “What you do as you leave here really matters. You now represent Tougaloo and what you do in the world will reflect on this fine institution and on the state.”
He said when he tells people he’s gone down to Mississippi, they reflect on the “few bad articles, but that’s not the whole story.” He noted that Mississippi has 176 physicians for every 100,000, the lowest in the country but the state also produces 40 percent of the African-American doctors nationwide.
“Hope is found with you at Tougaloo,” Lack continued. “You entered college in the last term of the first African-American president of the United States. Times have changed, but what hasn’t changed is the anger in American brought on by injustice. Now in the 21st century, your charge is to make the world and Mississippi a stronger and healthier place.”
Lack described his first assignment as a war correspondent cameraman with 60 Minutes during the Vietnam War. He said he wished he had come to Mississippi earlier, during Freedom Summer.
He concluded, “Always push the world respectfully and relentlessly and the world can become yours. Opportunity is what you make it. Think of the Tougaloo Nine and how they kept pushing. Think of your parents, grandparents and great grandparents – how they persevered and did that for you.
“As a student at a private college circled by trees with old Spanish moss, you found refuge here at Tougaloo. There is just as much hope out there and just as much need for you. May God continue to smile on Tougaloo.”
An honorary doctorate was also bestowed on Norman C. Francis, named one of the 100 most effective college and university leaders and longest-sitting university president in the U.S. since 1968 at Xavier University of Louisiana.
Francis said he first came to Tougaloo during the year President John F. Kennedy was assassinated with the goal to recruit more minorities into service in the federal government.
“To the graduates, if there ever were a time that we needed you, it is now. You are joining a very select number of graduates from iconic Tougaloo College. I offer my humblest advice to you as the future of this country … that you adhere to its constitution,” Francis said.
Also presented with an honorary doctorate was Robert Conrad Khayat, a graduate of the University of Mississippi and Yale University, who served as chancellor of the University of Mississippi School of Law from 1995 – 2009, increasing its enrollment by 43 percent.
Recognition also was given to Tougaloo’s class of 1966, which marked its 50th reunion, and the class of 1991, which marked its 25th reunion. Alumni from both classes were present.
A day after Tougaloo’s graduation, Lack headlined a launching party for Mississippi Today. He described the new venture as “focusing on state and local government, education and poverty, with an appeal to millennials who prefer using digital devices.”
He said Mississippi was chosen for this new venture because of its “innovative approach to news coverage.” The group launching Mississippi Today includes Donna and Jim Barksdale.
Just as he said in his address at Tougaloo, Lack said he loves Mississippi.
“I’m a grandson of Mississippi. Mississippi gave me all the opportunities I had in journalism that my grandfather, who was born and raised here gave to my mom, who was his only child and passed on to me.
Access to the new digital site is free. It is nonpartisan, non-profit and will work with journalism students in the state.”