Text of the 134th Commencement Address at The University of Texas at Austin delivered May 20, 2017 by David O. Brown, former chief of the Dallas Police Department.
I am so humbled to be here to address you.
I have a quick story. In the aftermath of the tragedies in Dallas that President Fenves just referred to, there was an outpouring of appreciation and support for law enforcement that poured into the city of Dallas, to police headquarters, through letters from well-wishers. My staff was inundated, going through the letters and trying to read as many as they could.
One particular morning, I came into the office, and my assistant, Ms. Ramos, was reading a letter from the boxes of letters that had come through one at a time. This particular letter had University of Texas postage on it, and she was crying as she was reading it.
I walked in, saw her crying, and asked what was wrong. Immediately she said, “Chief, you’ve got to read this letter.” Just like that.
I grabbed the letter, walked into my office, closed the door, and started reading the letter. The letter starts, “You may not remember me, but my name is Lance, and we were on a Greyhound Bus our freshman year heading to Austin.”
I immediately remembered Lance. The letter went on to recount our conversation on that bus ride here to Austin from Dallas. He talked about our talking and laughing and joking and becoming friends. By the way, Lance is white, and if you hadn’t noticed, I’m black.
And at the end of his letter, Lance asked this question of me: “Why did you decide to sit next to me? You could have sat anywhere.” And I sit back in my chair. I didn’t cry, but my allergies were acting up.
I thought about why I sat next to Lance. I grew up poor in inner-city Dallas — tough neighborhood. Lance grew up in a similar situation in a different state. On the bus, I noticed he didn’t have anything to eat. Every generation of my family brought me down to the Greyhound Bus Station with a sack lunch. I sat next to Lance intentionally, and we talked and talked. I could tell he was hungry. I could tell he didn’t have any money. I notice poor when I see it because I was poor. And yes, I did hide my sack lunch from Lance. I did.
But eventually I offered him part of my sack lunch. We ate, and we became friends. After we arrived on the campus of UT Austin with thousands of students, he was on the other side of the campus, and I was on this side of the campus, and we never saw each other again — until he writes this letter.
He asked, “Why did you sit next to me? Why did you share your meal? Why were you so kind?” The answer happened six years prior to that when I was in sixth grade.
I was in the first generation of kids bused in Dallas during desegregation in 1971. I was 11 years old. No one spoke to me. None of the white kids spoke. None of the black kids spoke to me. It was a very difficult time for an 11-year-old to try to figure out this race thing. I wanted to be back in my old school, and nobody wanted me at that school for the first three months, until one of my sixth-grade friends, Mike Schulenberg, who was white, invited me home for dinner.
He lived blocks from the school. I missed my school bus home. I walked over to his house with him to have dinner. I walk in the door, and his mom comes and looks at me. She looks at Mike and calls him into the kitchen. Maybe the students will have to Google “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” but I thought I was Sidney Poitier in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
They whispered, and they talked, and I felt uncomfortable. I started to walk out, and his mother came out with pot pies and sat down for dinner. And the first thing I thought is, “Man, white people sure eat dinner early.” It was like 3 o’clock. My mom’s not going to cook till 7!
Mike and I became best friends in sixth grade. We ran for school president and vice president. We were elected, and all the black kids and the white kids became friends and started speaking to each other. Mike and I are friends to this day. Mike is a Texas Ex.
So when Lance, who is a Texas Ex, asked, “Why did you sit next me?” it’s because Mike Schulenberg invited me home for dinner. It changed my worldview of race at 11 years old because he was kind, and he was authentic.
Now, as complex as our problems seem in this country, and as divided as we are — and it seems there’s just no resolution to our divisiveness — I have a premise: Invite someone home for dinner that doesn’t look like you.
Our neighborhoods, our schools, universities, our workplaces and homes, our country, and the global community is depending on you graduates to forge ahead through our disagreements, our conflicts, our crisis moments, and, yes, our random violence. Invite someone home for dinner.
We must participate and not retreat. We can be reconciled through our service and sacrifice for one another. Our democracy is at its best when we serve. Invite someone home for dinner.
The young people of the Civil Rights Movement — they served. The young men and women of the World War II generation, our greatest generation — they served. Our founding fathers — they served. And now you Millennials, you must find a way to serve. Your path to service has already been lit by the men and women of our military, who have fought and sacrificed and served this country with honor and distinction. Invite someone home for dinner.
I pray you endeavor to heal what is wounded, bringing together our divisiveness. I’m living half the time in New York, so I got the opportunity to watch the play “Hamilton,” so excuse me a little bit. Be young, scrappy, and hungry. Don’t give away your shot. Be willing to serve without expecting anything in return.
Some of the people who criticize and divide the most need to be served the most. Our country — our democracy’s foundation — was built on service. We have a right to protest, yes, but if our founding fathers had only protested and not served, we’d all be speaking the King’s English right now.
Our founding fathers fought for our freedom, then they wrote our constitution, and our Declaration of Independence, and our Bill of Rights. And then they served in government at every level.
Congratulations, 2017 graduating class of THE University of Texas at Austin. Raise ’em high! Raise ’em high!
What starts here changes the world. Hook ’em Horns!
And I’ll see you at dinner!