Democracy Is Worth the Struggle, Convocation Speaker Tells Howard Students

Isiah Leggett shares journey to becoming Montgomery County Executive

Isiah "Ike" Leggett, Howard University alumnus and former Montgomery County Executive, welcomes class of 2023. (Photo: Nancy Vu/HUNS)

By Nancy Vu and Arthur Cribbs, Howard University News Service

Washington– Isiah “Ike” Leggett shared his journey of overcoming racial adversity Friday morning during Howard University’s 152nd Opening Convocation address in Cramton Auditorium.

Leggett received various accolades along this journey, such as being selected as a White House Fellow under the Carter administration, receiving an Outstanding Alumni Award from the Howard University School of Law and serving three consecutive terms as the first and only black Montgomery County Executive until 2018.

With a black population of only 6 percent, the Maryland county had never elected a person of color as its leader until Leggett decided to run. His strategy? He never put his picture on any campaign literature.

Leggett noted how a friend thought his idea was based in “stupidity,” since he was so involved in the black community as a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, a Howard graduate and teacher, and an active member of his church.

After he won and ran for re-election, a voter assumed he was a candidate for a D.C. office because of his race.

“What he thought was that I was on the wrong side of Western Avenue and could not be running for a public office in Montgomery County,” Leggett said. “But I was. Throughout my time in office, that fear of race never entirely left me.”

He later used this experience to encourage the incoming class of 2023 to make a significant change to the process of democracy.

“Like so many Howard activists have learned, democracy is an often times an imperfect, messy process,” Leggett said. “But if you’re working with others who are committed to justice, it is worth the struggle.”

“You will find yourself at times participating in history, and often writing it in ways that will create the change you see. To the class of 2023, don’t hesitate to embrace this role.”

Leggett spoke of another instance of discrimination, in which police officers stopped him while driving around town to make sure that his campaign posters were in their proper places.

“They immediately jumped out of the car — two officers, one with his hand close to his gun,” he recalled. “The officer is about 6’7″, screaming loudly, cursing at me in the most profound way that you can imagine. I stood there, stunned, at this reaction.”

It wasn’t until another police officer recognized Leggett that the authorities began to back down.

“All this officer saw was a black face at night,” Leggett said. “The exact words that that officer used rang in my head for days after that incident.”

Along with speaking about racial adversity, Leggett spoke of his struggles growing up in the “real Louisiana” with 12 siblings in a three-room shotgun house with “no running water, no indoor plumbing, no lighting.” Struggling academically in high school, Leggett had never seen a person of color in a professional position. Still, he was encouraged by his mother and his football coach to pursue higher education.

Although he was initially rejected for a work-study program at Southern University, he was able to join the university’s maintenance crew in exchange for staying in the dormitories. He also had the support of his community, with his church raising $12 toward his tuition and Leggett’s state representative giving him a government-sponsored scholarship.

“My life and the struggles in my life have in many ways been moved by those two scholarships,” he said.  Leggett, who was also the Charter Day speaker at Howard in 2007, is now a member of the Board of Regents for the University System of Maryland.

Leggett also spoke about his persistence in his time at Southern University in the 1960s in Louisiana where he in addition to working as a groundskeeper, he had to fight for scholarships to afford his academic career. He alluded to a $37 scholarship raised by people at his church and a scholarship from Louisiana State Senator Cecil Blair.

 “My life and the struggles in my life have in many ways been moved by those two scholarships. On one hand, the $37 raised by that family and the entire church was all they had and they gave it with love and the expectation of success.” He added, “On the other hand, I wanted to demonstrate to Senator Blair that not only myself but other African American kids were deserving of scholarships that he gave to me in a dismissive fashion.”

Proving that African American’s constantly deserved opportunities, Leggett continued his practice of persistence beyond his undergraduate career.

 Leggett received his Master in Arts and Juris Doctor degrees from Howard University in 1974 and alluded to his alma mater’s legacy of justice.

 “Whatever the topic, the common thread is social justice. People who teach, people who study, people who work at Howard, they are drawn here to make society more equitable and more inclusive,” said Leggett.

 Earl Ettienne, who serves as the director of graduate programs and industry partnerships and faculty member in the College of Pharmacy, found inspiration in Leggett’s reference to equity. “We have an opportunity as an institution to stand up and counter racism and discrimination. This is an institution of justice and we optimize and reflect justice from day-to-day.”

Zeyna Diallo, a junior nursing major from Prince George’s County, Maryland, thought it was “inspirational to have someone like Isiah Leggett at convocation.”

“It reassures me that I can truly conquer above and beyond my expectations as long as I stay focused,” Diallo said.

Another student, however, was not as impressed.

“I thought convocation was truly a boring, underwhelming event,” said Katherine Osere, a junior biology major from Bowie, Maryland. “I would never go if I didn’t have to.”