May 28, 1964.
The senior class president walked to his seat with his speech in hand. He would never give that speech. There was another one. It was hidden away under his graduation robe. And when those words were read, what would normally be a celebratory crowd could only watch in silent disbelief. Most of the people in attendance, even the adults, agreed with the words that were read that night. But only one man, a student, had the courage to speak them.
The board of education was corrupt. Most of their efforts were devoted to maintaining power rather than ensuring the best possible education for the children and families they were elected to serve. There was one man who was willing to do something. He was an outsider. But he was a good teacher. Most of the students who were graduating that night would say that he was their favorite teacher. But his willingness to take a stand cost him his job. He was fired several weeks before the end of the year. So instead of learning history for the last month or so of the year, students just sat in class. Quietly. Doing nothing.
But one student, the senior class president, was waiting for just the right moment to make his move. Graduation night.
He stood before the unsuspecting audience. Reaching in the sleeve of his gown, he pulled out the speech he intended to read. Not the typical faculty approved thousand points of light speech you expect to hear at a graduation. He turned his gaze away from his fellow classmates and towards the members of the board of education.
And then he spoke.
“If you would have us be responsible citizens — then, you must set the example for us; if you would have us learn and practice democratic government — then, you must set the example for us; if you would have us believe in Christianity — then, you must set the true Christian example for us.”
“For those who come after us, we say you have not seen democracy in practice these last days — but, rather you have seen tyranny in theory and practice.”
“If what we have witnessed is democracy, what is the difference between our brand and Hitler’s, Kruschev’s, Castro’s, or Mao se Tung’s?”
And then he sat down.
Not long after that night in late May of 1964, the history teacher, the man who was fired for standing up against corruption, offered to help two men who were just passing through town. For his efforts, he was robbed and murdered. He left behind a wife and two adopted children. Twenty years later, his wife taught me how to sing hymns in my church’s kid’s choir.
Just a little over ten years after the senior class president, Larry Sanders, gave that speech he watched his wife give birth to their second son. I spent a big portion of my life not really knowing my father. But I knew about that speech that he gave. And it made me proud. I always hoped that his courage to speak up and stand against evil, even if it wasn’t popular to do such things, was in my genetic wiring.
Right now that speech is framed. One of the two typed out pages is yellow. The other one is faded. They’re both sitting right next to me as I type this.
When I look at them, I’m reminded of my responsibilities as a pastor. Speak the truth, even when it’s not popular. Stand against evil, no matter how normal that evil may seem.
I also think about the two boys sleeping in the room next to me. I think about the world that they will grow up in and the evils they will face and be tempted to accept. I hope that my sons have the same courage that their grandfather demonstrated on May 28, 1964.
One day, when they’re old enough, I will probably give them their grandfather’s framed graduation speech. And when they look at it, I hope that they remember that sometimes it’s just not right to stay quiet.
No matter what it may cost.