President Brown, Dean Lataif, distinguished faculty, proud parents, family, friends – and most importantly, the Class of 2010 – thank you for inviting me here to share in this moment. It is a privilege to congratulate you all on this milestone and to join you in celebrating this new beginning.
This is an extraordinary class. Your talents are well known across this campus, this city, and, of course, on You Tube. And I want you all to know how much I appreciate your invitation to play a leading role in the next "LipDub" video.
Today, as I look out on this sea of scarlet, I am reminded of another Boston University graduate who commenced the most important phase of his life at a ceremony like this one, 55 years ago.
His name was Martin Luther King, Jr. – or, as he was known for the first time after receiving his BU doctorate on that spring day in 1955, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I am reminded of Dr. King, not only because he blazed the trail that allows me to stand on this stage as our nation’s first African-American Attorney General; and not only because his dream of a more just and inclusive world remains one of our most important guideposts. Today, I am reminded of Dr. King because he, too, took leave of this campus at a difficult, and defining, moment in America’s history. Throughout his life and – most famously – in his final sermon, Dr. King asked himself when, in the full history of time, he would choose to be alive.
On the eve of his assassination, in a cramped Memphis church, he posed this question in his legendary "Mountaintop" speech, which began with a journey through the ages. At each stop – whether Mount Olympus or ancient Rome, Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation or Roosevelt’s call to fear only fear itself – Dr. King asked himself what era he would choose – if he could make such a choice – to be part of. His own, he decided, explaining that happiness comes from embracing the blessings and burdens of fate and the opportunities that accompany living in times of unprecedented challenge. "I know," he said, "that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars."
Today, once again, it is dark enough. Today, once more, we can see the stars.
Despite the challenges before us, despite the threats we face and the problems we must address, incredible progress is being made. In fact, from the day you entered BU to this day on which you leave it – degree in hand – we’ve made strides that, just four years ago, were unimaginable.
For the first time, Massachusetts has an African-American governor – and the United States, an African-American president. Our economy is beginning to grow again. Our country is beginning to heal again. And, although this is painful for me to say as a born-and-bred New Yorker, the Red Sox and Celtics were – yes – world champions. That is the stuff of miracles- bad miracles.
Over the past four years, we’ve come far – and you’ve come far. But the fact is that darkness remains. Injustice remains. Divisions and disparities remain. And the poorest among us continue to suffer most. For many Americans, economic recovery hasn’t come quickly enough – particularly for your generation, which faces fewer job prospects than usual.
There are also more systemic threats to our society: terrorists who live only to murder the innocent; an environment in the balance and at the mercy of mankind; a justice system whose promise of fairness is too often compromised by the large number of defendants who cannot afford or access representation; and the alarming number of children who are exposed to crime, violence, and disease.
Although between our iPods and Blackberries, life, on its surface, may feel easier today than ever, the truth is that there is nothing easy about 2010. Which means you have a choice to make: You can decide that life has dealt you a bad hand and you can give up. Or, class of 2010, you can decide to accept the challenges that confront you, and you can look up – and, because it’s dark enough, you can see the stars.
As you make your way forward, I know that many of you plan to continue your studies. Others are unsure. And, for some, this will be the last day you spend on an academic campus as a student. You may never sit through another lecture or pull another all-nighter, fueled by nothing but caffeine and fear. And all of you will soon say goodbye to Allston basement parties, to friends you’ve come to rely on, and to professors you will never forget. As you celebrate everything you’ve achieved and experienced here, I know the last thing you want to think about is your new bond of responsibility. But, starting now, that is what you must do.
I am talking specifically about the obligation to be a servant for the public good.
Yes, I know that this class has already contributed more than 100,000 hours of community service in Boston – and around the world – this year. And I know many of you intend to pursue public interest jobs and service opportunities. After graduating today, one of you will be volunteering in Haiti, another will be entering the Teach for America program. One of you plans to move to India to launch a film company focusing on socially conscious topics. And – tomorrow – one of you will be commissioned as an officer in the United States Marine Corps. Semper Fi!
No matter what your path, you must always remember the enormous investment that’s been made in you, not only by your families but also by our society. Your years of study at BU were a luxury – especially for those of you lucky enough to live in StuV-II – and this luxury comes at a price. From this day forward, you must do your part to improve the world around you. As of today, you not only have the ability and the credibility, you also have the responsibility.
Let us never forget that our country has only grown stronger – the words of our Constitution have only reached the full measure of their intent – because previous generations of Americans embraced the obligations that come with opportunity: From George Washington, who risked his life on the battlefield for an untested experiment called liberty, to Abraham Lincoln, who risked the very fabric of our union in the name of freedom, and, of course, to Dr. King, who made the ultimate sacrifice for the dream of equality.
You must embrace your responsibilities – indeed welcome them – with the same enthusiasm and dedication that you have shown during your time here. So many of you ventured into the community before even setting foot in the classroom. You became citizens of Boston first, citizens of Boston University second. Whether through FYSOP or during the Global Day of Service, you helped to build a better city, country, and world.
And just as you did in good times – like when the Terriers took the gold – you’ve come together as a community. I’m not only talking about when you sang on BU Beach and held hands on Election Night, though, believe me, I’ve heard the stories. I’m referring to the times of crisis that brought out your best selves. When an earthquake in Haiti killed nearly a quarter million people, you independently mobilized. You raised tens of thousands of dollars. And you engaged the wider Boston and University community in your unprecedented philanthropic venture.
To me, this indicates you are ready, and well-equipped, to apply your energy and compassion to improve our society and the lives of others. After all, if history is any guide – and I believe it is – positive change is the consequence of unfavorable, not favorable, circumstance. Progress is the product of darkness, not light.
Wherever you look into our past, this is true. It was social frustration, and moral imperative, that brought an end to slavery and segregation; that secured voting rights for women and civil rights for all; that provided health care for our seniors and our poor; and guaranteed decent wages for our workers. It was economic turmoil that brought us the Progressive Era and the New Deal. And it was a Civil War that inspired the reconstruction of our Union and the correction of our Constitution.
These advancements, like others that have marked America’s story, were not inevitable. And they must never be taken for granted. The America we have inherited and the opportunities we have been afforded are the result of hard work, sustained activism, considerable sacrifice, and great courage.
As I look at the diversity of the graduates before me – as I think about the fact that one in ten of you hail from a different country and many of you are becoming the first in your family to receive a college or advanced degree – I’m reminded of the remarkable progress I have witnessed in my lifetime. And, especially since my wife is here with me today, I am also reminded of her late sister, Vivian Malone Jones – a woman who had to fight for the chance to earn the degree you are receiving today.
In 1963, Vivian became one of the first two African Americans to enroll at the University of Alabama. Governor George Wallace, who famously demanded "segregation now" and "segregation forever," tried to block her. But – with the help of the Justice Department I now lead, and through the determination of my most famous predecessor, Robert Kennedy – she summoned the courage to walk through those schoolhouse gates and, also, to graduate. Vivian did not wish to be alive in better, fairer days. Instead, she seized the moment, and the circumstances, she’d been given and – with determination, optimism, and grace – she moved forward through darkness. Along the way, she opened the doors of opportunity for countless others who have followed in her steps.
Her example serves as a reminder that each of us has the power to make a difference. You, too, can help your fellow citizens. You, too, can improve the world we share and help to build a future we’ll be proud to pass on. As recipients of a first-class education, this is your duty. And as those blessed with living in the second decade of the twenty-first century, this is your calling – to not only see, but to be, those stars in the darkness.
Today, as we celebrate everything you’ve achieved, we also look forward to all I know you can, and will, accomplish. I am eager to see where, over that "mountaintop," each of you leads our nation and our world.
Good luck, and congratulations to you all.