NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Tennessee high school valedictorian is gaining attention and support online after her speech at her school’s graduation ceremony Saturday was cut off as she spoke about racial injustice and protests over the death of George Floyd.
In her purple cap and gown, DayOnna Carson spoke to her classmates gathered on the football field at Central High School in Hamilton County, Tennessee about the impact the coronavirus pandemic had on their senior year and ongoing racial tensions across the country.
“The whole world protested the inexcusable murder of George Floyd and, after many long days of demonstration, signing petitions and donating, we are able to give him justice,” Carson said.
“Change starts with ourselves; change starts with our community. Therefore, we must continue (the) work of all the people that came before us by voting not only in national elections, but local elections that directly impact us to create the country that we want. We must not let the progress of our ancestors have been in vain,” she continued.
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But as Carson read the last words of her speech, “No justice, no peace,” from her phone, her microphone was silenced.
A recording of the live ceremony posted on the school’s Facebook page shows Carson walking back to her seat before Central High Principal Phil Iannarone takes the podium.
In the background, some can be heard yelling, “That ain’t right!”
“DayOnna Carson, valedictorian of the class of 2020 at Central High School, delivered an excellent graduation speech at the Central High ceremony on Saturday. We apologize to DayOnna and her family that the last words of her speech were not able to be heard by those in attendance or by family and friends viewing on the live stream, this was by no means intentional,” Iannarone said in the statement.
“Her message of legacy, racial justice and civil rights was timely. Without question, DayOnna is the epitome of excellence that we desire as a school, and we look forward to seeing all that she will accomplish as she goes on to attend Harvard University this fall.”
‘Consider the conservative audience’
Many took to social media over the weekend expressing their outrage that Carson, a young Black woman, was censored and praising her speech.
Chattanooga activist Marie Mott spoke in support of Carson in a Facebook video on Saturday. She encouraged parents to speak against injustice in area schools.
“I want to take this moment to thank a young Black woman for being unapologetic in this time. And I want to reassure her that I see her, I affirm her and I stand as a shield for her,” Mott said. “What happened to the valedictorian at Central High School today is a reminder of the racism that exists not only in our city, but even in our public schools.”
Carson, the former editor-in-chief of Central High’s student newspaper, is headed to Harvard University this fall. She is one of 300 recipients nationwide of the Bill and Melinda Gates Scholarship.
In the weeks prior to the commencement ceremony, Carson worked with an English teacher and other school officials to write her speech. She said it was pre-approved and she sent a copy to Iannarone before the ceremony.
Carson was discouraged when school officials told her to “consider the conservative audience” when crafting her speech.
“I tried to stay very neutral. I thought it was really important for me to speak out though. A lot of people think racism is gone and they are kind of proving my point of my whole speech,” Carson said. “I decided to be more direct because there are a lot of racial incidents happening around the whole country and even in our own school. It’s the big elephant in the room.”
Carson said she also wanted to rally her peers to action.
“A lot of young people today have no hope for the future. I wanted to call my peers into action,” she said. “I knew if I (didn’t), I will regret it my whole life. So much has happened, I, at least. need to call it out for what it is.”
Hamilton County Schools’ Chief Equity Officer Marsha Drake attended Central’s graduation ceremony Saturday and said in a statement also released by the district Tuesday that DayOnna’s speech addressed “important issues of the day.”
“Ensuring that racism and discrimination of any kind are eliminated remains key to every community and within our school district. As DayOnna stated in her speech, ‘Change starts with ourselves; change starts with our community.’ We look forward to the impact DayOnna, and the class of 2020 will have on our world and we are proud of each of them,” Drake said.