Excerpts from former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt's speech to the Charlotte Housing Authority Scholarship Fund Breakfast last week:
In many ways, I relate to the young people who start out in public housing – often with minimal expectations that they might one day walk across a college campus as a student. Yet, somehow they stretch themselves to overcome social and financial challenges to achieve beyond society's expectations.
I identify with these students – not just because I, too, started out in public housing, but because there have been so many circumstances in my own life where I had to stretch myself to go beyond expectations, to push against limits to reach some goal.
When I meet scholarship fund alumni and listen to their stories, I discover these young people are in fact me. They have relished the journey through life, they like pushing the limits and for the most part they never perceive themselves as underdogs. Where do the confidence, vision, perseverance and courage come from?
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I thought I might try to give some clues to answer these questions by sharing three scenarios from my story.
My first five years growing up in Charleston in the '40s were spent in public housing. My parents had a great influence on me – and I suspect my self-confidence and sense of worth emanated from their daily lessons about the importance of education, the merits of hard work, and what it meant to be a good neighbor. They required two things of all of us – go to church, and excel in school. Neither parent had a high school diploma, but they insisted all five of us would go to college.
In a rigidly segregated South, earning a laborer's wage and with five children, they somehow had a vision for their children bigger than their pocketbook. They stretched themselves (Dad worked three jobs) to realize their dream of having college-trained kids. We were a low-income family and my folks, notwithstanding our segregated, second-class status, saw change coming that would make America's promise real for their children.
I am convinced that in the life stories of every child succeeding in this program there is some adult, – parent, relative, teacher, friend – who has helped instill strong self-confidence, self-worth and self-esteem.
My second story has to do with going to Clemson. On a cold day in late January 1963, I entered Clemson University with the state of South Carolina and the nation watching. South Carolina was the last state to desegregate its all-white institutions.
Entry to Clemson was the culmination of a journey to stretch myself, to pursue a career in an area of study not common to African Americans, and to get that education wherever my academic skills would allow me to go. For me, the journey was about removing limits to pursue a goal.
I spent countless hours as a teenager studying the civil rights movement and the customs of my segregated community. I came to see the 1954 (Supreme Court desegregation) decision as shattering the limitations that racial segregation had brought. I saw no limitations on what I could do.
I made my decision unilaterally, applied to Clemson in the spring of 1961 – and then informed my parents and friends. I filed four applications. Three were rejected. From 1961 to the fall of 1962, we endured the specter of being both hero and villain. The U.S. Appeals Court ruled in early January of 1963, and the Supreme Court refused a petition to overturn the Appeals Court ruling.
The Clemson story represents a characteristic I find often in people like these scholarship recipients: having the vision to see beyond the place you are standing, toward a larger universe of possibilities. Because they refuse to be limited, they can stretch themselves willingly – and succeed.
Finally, let me share a little about my run for the U.S. Senate.
I had no experience in running for office statewide, had no money to jumpstart a campaign and was certainly not the candidate party leaders would choose to run against an 18-year incumbent, whose fame (or notoriety) was unprecedented in North Carolina and perhaps the nation. I knew a race like this would test everything in me. Oddsmakers gave me little chance – after all, I was from Charlotte, went to Clemson, was inexperienced in world affairs, was considered a liberal Democrat and, of course, I was black. Yet despite obvious disadvantages, I thought I had a different vision for our state. The senator's views were almost diametrically opposite mine. I believed it was more important than ever to challenge him and to engage North Carolinians in a debate and dialogue about our collective future.
In one sense, I was recalling my own history as a Southerner. I remembered my parents and their struggle to make the promise of American real for us. I remembered how civil rights leaders had taken bold and courageous actions, and built national support to change an entire social system. I had witnessed many acts by individuals displaying courage and conviction to bring about meaningful change. So the odds against me, daunting as they seemed, were far outweighed by the conviction to share with North Carolina citizens a new vision.
Well, all of you know how that challenge ended. I was, however, most concerned about my family, particularly my children and young people who appeared embittered by the results. I didn't want this loss to cripple their growth as positive, spirited and outstanding young people just beginning their adult years. So before going out greet supporters, I shared four things that sum up much of what I believe about people who stretch themselves to the limit and never, ever, feel they can't beat the odds.
First, I felt strong as a person, I felt good about the challenge and the issues we raised. Second, I marveled at the distance we had come, from that working-class family in Charleston
Third, in the great struggle for change, there are times when one may lose the battle but long term, you have an obligation to get up from defeat and continue to fight. Finally, it was important to respect the winner and his supporters, even if it seemed his tactics were unfair and wrong. Life does not guarantee that hard work and fair play will always be rewarded with instant victory.
So what can we do to sustain this program for generations? We can, of course, give money. But just as important, we can become involved and engaged with these scholars, encouraging them to keep stretching, keep pushing, stay confident, remove glass ceilings and stay resilient. In the end, His grace really is sufficient, and you can and will succeed.