It would be safe to say that no high school in the United States, or anywhere else in the world, has had a Nobel Laureate speak at their graduation. If a Nobel Laureate were to speak at a commencement exercise it would be at a major college or university, not a high school. You could not say this about the 1951 graduating class of University High School in Oxford.
On May 28, 1951, Nobel Prize winner for Literature, William Faulkner spoke to a capacity crowd in Fulton Chapel for the commencement of the 1951 class of University High School. His daughter, Jill, who was a member of the class, had prevailed upon her father give one of the few public addresses he had ever given. Just a few months earlier, in December 1950, he and Jill had travel to Stockholm where he gave an acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize that was carried around the world in most major newspapers. Now he had to give a speech to the local children and their families, only because his daughter had tricked him into doing so.
Faulkner had just managed to dodge appearances for the National Book Award and the New York Newspaper Guild Award, but this was one request he could not turn down. In his biography of Faulkner, Joseph Blotner states the principal of University High had thought of asking Faulkner to give the commencement address. He prevailed upon Jill to call her father in New York and ask him. Jill said, “Pappy they want you to talk to our high school class.” To Faulkner it sounded like some informal talk and he always found it hard to refuse Jill anything within reason. When he got home from New York, he found that the talk would be a commencement speech in Fulton Chapel on the Ole Miss campus in front of the graduating class of University High, their parents, and guests. He was trapped, and he would have to go through with his promise.
On the night of the commencement, Miss Nancy Bagwell introduced Faulkner. She introduced him as “Oxford’s most distinguished citizen.” He began with a paraphrase from the 16th century Frenchman, Henri Estienne: “If youth knew; if age could.” Blotner states that the speech began like a very ordinary commencement address. It was the young people who could change the world. He then began to sharpen and turn the thought, picking up echoes of the Stockholm speech and pushing beyond it.
“Our danger,” Faulkner said, “is the forces in the world today which are trying to use man’s fear to rob him of his individuality, his soul, trying to reduce him to an unthinking mass by fear and bribery—giving him free food which he has not earned, easy and valueless money which he has not worked for….These systems and men, foreign and domestic, would reduce man to one obedient mass for their own aggrandizement and power, or because they themselves are baffled and afraid, afraid of, or incapable of, believing in man’s capacity for courage and endurance and sacrifice.” So they should never be afraid. If all the young people would speak out, as individuals, they could change the earth, and in one generation the tyrants “will have vanished from the face of it.”
Faulkner then ended, as Phil “Moon” Mullen reported in the Oxford Eagle, with a challenge which he himself always answered: “So, never be afraid. Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth, and compassion, against injustice and lying and greed.” The speech took only four and one-half minutes to give. It was probably the shortest commencement speech on record. After the speech Faulkner was in a great mood. He spoke with students and gave Phil Mullen a copy of the speech that was later carried on all the wire services and published in major newspapers around the country.
That evening a party was held for the students at the Elliot home near Rowan Oak. Baxter Elliott, Jr. was one of the class members and Mrs. Sallie Elliott was a long time friend of the Faulkners. “You know, “ Faulkner said, “I never knew how nice a graduation could be. This is the first one I’ve ever been to.” One of Jill’s classmates had stated when they learned her father was to give the commencement address, “Aw, Jill” he said, “let’s get somebody important.” Little did he know that their graduation would be the subject of many newspaper articles around the United States the next day.
University High School will hold a Grand Reunion for all classes (1930 to 1967) on June 10-12 at the Oxford Conference Center. To make a reservation ($35 per person) visit the UHS website at uhsoxford.org to obtain a reservation form. If you have any questions please call Jim Pryor at 662-234-4087. Reservation must be made by May 31st.
Jack Lamar Mayfield is a fifth generation Oxonian, whose family came to Oxford shortly after the Chickasaw Cession of 1832, and he is the third generation of his family to graduate from the University of Mississippi. He is a former insurance company executive and history instructor at Marshall Academy in Holly Springs, South Panola High School in Batesvile and the Oxford campus of Northwest Community College.
In addition to his weekly blog in HottyToddy.com Oxford’s Olden Days, Mayfield is also the author of an Images of America series book titled Oxford and Ole Miss published in 2008 for the Oxford-Lafayette County Heritage Foundation. The Foundation is responsible for restoring the post-Civil War home of famed Mississippi statesman, L.Q.C. Lamar and is now restoring the Burns Belfry, the first African American Church in Oxford.