Berea College — and its emphasis on providing a college education to those who don’t have the means to pay for it — should become a model for the rest of the country, renowned scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. told the school’s graduates yesterday.The nation needs an economic bill of rights, guaranteeing access to a safe, good education, affordable health care and a place to live, said Gates, a Harvard professor of African-American studies and a cultural critic.
He challenged the 245 graduates to do better than his generation.
“Will you have the will to insist that the Berea ideal becomes the American ideal?” he asked.
Gates noted that Berea, which was founded in 1855, was the first interracial college in the south. He said the school has been a model for the rest of the country ever since.
The college, which admits only low-income students and does not charge tuition, awarded Gates an honorary degree of humane letters. Jean Fairfax, a civil rights leader who began her career at Kentucky State College, now Kentucky State University, was also awarded an honorary degree.
An economic bill of rights would have the effect of affirmative action for the poor, Gates said. Race-based affirmative action provided a way for blacks to enter the middle class, and he was one of those who benefited, Gates said.