When Tennessee State University announced that the school’s commencement would be held outdoors at Hale Stadium for the first time in 40 years, TSU President Glenda Glover was already in the process of making the event more memorable.
She had called an old friend and asked him if he would be available to give the graduation speech.
He agreed — and last month, TSU officially announced that civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse Jackson would address the graduates.
Jackson and Glover’s friendship dates back to the 1960s when Henry Baskin, Glover’s father, worked as a sanitation supervisor in Memphis.
Two black sanitation workers were killed when their truck malfunctioned in 1968. The incident incensed the community, and more than 1,300 black sanitation workers went on strike.
Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his young aide Jackson visited Memphis multiple times to offer support to the sanitation workers. Jackson developed a relationship with Baskin during the strike.
King spoke to sanitation workers on April 3, 1968 — his famous speech with the phrase, “I’ve been to the mountaintop” — the night before he was assassinated on a motel balcony in Memphis.
“[Rev. Jackson] knew my father in the civil rights movement,” Glover said. “That’s how I initially met him, through my father’s efforts. After I became a professional myself, we connected with projects that we had been working on.”
Jackson is the founder and CEO of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a multi-issue social justice organization. Glover is in her first year as president at TSU.
Glover said Jackson’s speech at TSU’s commencement is fitting because 2013 marks 50 years since one of the civil rights movement’s defining moments.
“Since it is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, since [Rev. Jackson] is a notable icon of the entire civil rights movement, I thought it was just proper for him to encourage the students,” Glover said. “That march was about employment and economics, the same issues that graduates are confronting today. Fast-forward 50 years and we have Rev. Jackson to talk to us.”
Glover said Jackson didn’t tell her exactly what he would say in his speech, but he did request statistics from TSU about their graduating class. Glover said more than 60 percent of the 2013 class has a 3.0 grade point average or higher. TSU students are also going to graduate schools in fields like health care and agriculture.
“He wants some data like that, so he can be better prepared for the speech,” Glover said. “He was impressed.”
In addition to Jackson’s campus visit on Saturday, First Lady Michelle Obama will be speaking at Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet High School’s graduation at TSU’s Gentry Center on May 18.
“It says that TSU is really in the forefront of higher education. We are inviting key individuals who can mentor the students and those that students see as role models,” Glover said. “[Attracting guest speakers] helps us a lot with recruiting students to TSU and as we tell our story. They become aware of our rich history.”
Glover hopes to give students a role in picking out a commencement speaker in the future.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson will be honored at a reception on Friday night. TSU’s commencement begins at 9 a.m. on Saturday at Hale Stadium. Inclement weather could move the ceremony to the nearby Gentry Center with overflow seating in Kean Hall.
The Gentry Center has a capacity of 12,000 people, and the school expects 14,000 for the ceremony.