U.S. Senator Laphonza Butler keynotes JSU commencement ceremony, invites graduates to take risks as they ‘flip the bag’

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U.S. Senator Laphonza Butler (Photo: Aron Smith/University Communications)

By William H. Kelly III

JA Guest Writer

Jackson State University held its Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony on Saturday, May 4, in the Lee E. Williams Athletics and Assembly Center, celebrating the start of something new for over 500 of the institution’s latest alumni. The ceremony was bathed in an atmosphere of graduates acknowledging the life ahead and cherishing moments with those they hold dear.

JSU President Marcus L. Thompson extended a warm welcome and expressed gratitude to those in attendance who successfully contributed to the graduates’ big day – from JSU faculty and staff to family and friends, all were seen and recognized for a job well done. 

“Now, to this special Class of 2024. This is your day. We are here to celebrate you, so I encourage you to enjoy this accomplishment, for it is a tremendous milestone in your life and a major step in your career. Congratulations, and enjoy your ceremony,” Thompson said against a backdrop of mighty roars and applause from the audience. 

JSU alumna and U.S. Senator Laphonza Butler delivered the keynote address with candid humor and enlightened transparency as she recalled what it was like sitting in those “same seats” 23 years ago.

Though she says that many of the details surrounding the event are a blur, Butler reassured that what she did retain was the true gift. 

“I could remember that my grandmother was going to be there, and I could remember that I hadn’t seen her in a few years because she had moved to Colorado with my aunt. I could remember my aunt, my uncle, and my mom. I could remember everybody who was here, but I have no idea what happened in the ceremony,” she started. “I just settled into the fact that my amnesia was the true gift. My amnesia was the gift because it allowed the memories of those who helped me get here to shine forward.”

The audience hummed tones of agreement.

Butler then invited the graduating class to stand once again and show appreciation for the sacrifices of those that surrounded them with love and comfort throughout their matriculation – from fulfilling CashApp requests to picking up a second job and enduring sleepless nights, all to ensure that their student was cared for. 

“It is because of them that you are here and we all owe them a debt of gratitude.”

Hands to chest, Butler took a moment to express appreciation once more. This time for her alma mater, political science department, and humble beginnings as a student at South Pike High School in Magnolia, Mississippi.

“I stand before you today, Jackson State, as the only Black woman serving in the United States Senate. I stand before you as only the third Black woman to ever serve in the United States Senate and the 12th Black person in the history of our country to be a United States Senator. So, Jackson State, thank you for making it possible for us to make history together,” said Butler, who represents over 40 million people in California.


There was much for Jackson State to celebrate on commencement day. 

Butler referenced the Sonic Boom of the South Alumni Band recently finishing the “It’s All A Blur – Big as the What?” tour with megastar musical artists Drake and J. Cole. In the spirit of fun, she shared the iconic line from Drake’s 2013 song “Started From the Bottom” that epitomizes her “life and experience,” saying: “It simply goes, ‘I started from the bottom, now we’re here.’ Jackson State, no matter where you started, here is where you are. Achieving the impossible is where we are prepared to go with you.” 

Borrowing from The Parable of the Talents, the senator told the story of a man entrusting his servants with his wealth as he embarked on a journey. They were each given varying amounts of the man’s wealth in the form of bags and tasked with making proper use of them. While two of the servants decided to multiply their many bags, one servant, who was given one bag, decided to bury it, leading to ridicule and condemnation by his master.

“The main lesson that I offer to the Class of 2024, grounded in this parable, demanding from you that you flip your bag is simply this: that it’s not how many bags you start with, it’s how you flip it.” 

Butler shared how her mother worked three jobs, sometimes in one day, to make ends meet after her father transitioned.

“She worked, and she did everything that she could to make sure that I got to Jackson State University. By the time I graduated, after being on this campus, I knew I still didn’t have as much as others, but it was up to me not to bury my bag in the ground. I had to take the talents JSU had given me, the knowledge they had entrusted me with, and the intellectual curiosity, the thirst and desire to pursue equity and justice. I needed to put my talents to work so that I could flip my bag.”

Now, as a representative of a state the size of 13 Mississippi’s, the senator shared that her current role is a testament to and product of “flipping the bag.” 

“Whatever your talents or gifts are, please don’t just go out and bury them in a hole. Don’t hide it. Don’t hide from your shine. Make sure that you are putting your talents to work,” she stressed.  


Butler then offered three lessons that carried her along her journey and, thus, helped her flip the bag: Collaboration and community, investment and taking risks, and focus. 

She emphasized the power of community and the ability to be strong solo or as an individual but even stronger as a team. Butler then encouraged listeners to invest time and energy into their gifts and talents to fully maximize their potential, no matter the challenges and outcomes, rather than spending hours on social media watching others’ versions and definitions of success.

“Class of 2024, there are risks in your life that will be worth taking. You won’t know it in the moment. It will feel scary and dangerous, but our mission is to flip the bag, so we gotta invest…don’t get so distracted by the bag that you forget what’s in it,” urged Butler before the audience responded with applause and cheers of agreement. 

She warned the graduates that distractions will attempt to convince them that what is on the outside is much more important and valuable than what is in their bags.

“I need you, Jackson State, to know that you’ve gotta be focused on the value and the worth inside your bag because even the servant that had one still had a million. He still had a million, and so do you,” she said. 

In closing, Butler forewarned that people would try to persuade them to believe that a million dollars is not enough, but their education should show them otherwise.  

“I am convinced that Jackson State has given you everything that you need to make your million work for you, and what is inside of you is more valuable than those things that are on the outside.”

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U.S. Senator Laphonza Butler keynotes JSU commencement ceremony, invites graduates to take risks as they ‘flip the bag’

By Jackson Advocate News Service
May 13, 2024