Thank you, Shirlethia – a proud graduate of Howard Law – for that kind introduction, and for your hard work and wise counsel at the Department of Justice. When and where you enter, you bring the dignity and grace of Howard Law School with you.
Thank you all for such a warm welcome. I want to thank Dean [Danielle] Holley-Walker, for presiding over this ceremony, and for your leadership of this extraordinary institution of scholarship and progress. I also want to acknowledge President [Wayne] Frederick and Provost [Anthony] Wutoh. And I want to welcome everyone – graduates, parents, family and friends; distinguished faculty and special guests – to today’s event. It is a pleasure to be here at Howard University School of Law, and a privilege to address my newest colleagues – the Howard Law School class of 2016.
This hooding ceremony is a very special part of a wonderful day of graduation events. I am so honored to be here. When people ask you to help them commemorate the most special events in their lives it is quite meaningful. You have already had such a wonderful graduation morning. And I had the best warm up act any speaker could want in the President of the United States.
Of course you do have a full day of events, because it takes a day to acknowledge all the accomplishments of Howard graduates. You at the law school are particularly brave, however. As many of you know, I come from a long line of Baptist preachers. Here I have an open mike and a captive audience. This could take a while. I won’t take up too much of your time today, despite my heritage. I gave a speech in New York once and a good friend was very complimentary when I concluded. When I asked her what she liked about it, she reflected for a moment and said, “It was really short.” I’ve taken that to heart ever since.
It is a truly incredible honor to be here today at this storied institution – one of the oldest laws schools in the country, and the first historically black college or university law school in the United States. As all of you already know, this extraordinary campus has been an incubator for some of the most groundbreaking legal minds in history. You’ve heard the stories of graduates like Charlotte Ray, who graduated in 1872 and became the first African-American woman to practice law in the United States. Thurgood Marshall graduated first in his class in 1933 and went on to become the first African-American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Pauli Murray – an extraordinary woman from my hometown of Durham, North Carolina – received her degree in 1944 and spent her life fighting for gender equality, racial equality and LGBT equality, and has been named a saint in the Episcopal Church. At one commencement ceremony nearly six decades ago, this school presented honorary Doctor of Laws degrees to Jackie Robinson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.– such an abundance of star power that when the Washington Post reported on it, they mentioned Dr. King only briefly as a “Montgomery, Alabama, pastor who led the bus boycott.” Howard Law counts among its distinguished alumni Members of Congress, governors, federal judges and civil rights activists. The former dean of this school, Charles Hamilton Houston, is known as nothing less than “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow.”
That’s quite a legacy you’re being asked to uphold and extend. And after three years at a place with such a rich heritage and longstanding traditions, many of you – and many of your parents – probably have a very specific idea of what a Howard Law graduate does. You’ve all heard the words “social engineers” a fair amount, I’m sure – and you’ve all been told, as Dean Houston said, that “a lawyer’s either a social engineer, or…a parasite on society” – which doesn’t leave room for much gray area in between. And so as you sit here today, you may be carrying on your shoulders a great weight of expectations – the expectations of your parents, who love you and want you to succeed; the expectations of your school and your alumni community, who hope you will follow in the footsteps of your illustrious forebears; and maybe even the expectations you have for yourselves, for your careers, and for your futures – to do well, to get ahead, to change the world. But let me share this with you – expectations are a reflection of a path someone else has already taken. Let them guide you. Let them inspire you. But do not let them define you.
Graduation from an elite law school often brings the expectation to follow a specific path – and that can be especially true for students of color. But one of the hard truths of life outside law school is that the path of least resistance – the path cleared by the force of expectations – isn’t always right for everyone. Now is the time to chart your own course. I know it seems daunting, particularly in the shadow of such distinguished alumni. But remember this – all of them at one time sat where you are sitting now, and wondered the same thing. In the great unknown of the future, how will I find my place? What will be my path? What will be my guide? I am here today to tell you that you don’t have to know right now what you want to do. All you need to know is what kind of a person you want to become. The challenges of the last three years have involved course work, exams and job searches. The challenge now, and throughout your career in this great profession of ours, is to find what matters to you, what resonates with you. What makes you rise, as Maya Angelou wrote, “into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear”? And when you find that – when you find the principles and ideals that give your life meaning – you will find the opportunities that will fulfill you. You will see your options through a lens that filters out all the noise and expectations. You will find the work that touches your heart. And that path itself, your path, will lead you to your answers and give your life its meaning.
I say this from personal experience. When I left law school, I went to work at a large law firm on Wall Street. It was a great job and a wonderful opportunity. It made sense. I worked with brilliant people and learned so much. Then late one night, on the heels of many other late nights, I actually passed out at my desk. I was taken to the hospital and diagnosed with exhaustion. And as I was recovering, I started to think about whether the work that I was doing was why I went to law school. Was this work really what excited me? And was it worth being hospitalized for?
Shortly after that, I decided to leave my large Wall Street firm and to go work as a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn. I wasn’t so many years out of law school, and I still had student loans to pay off – something that would take much longer to do on a government salary. I remember having to explain my decision to my parents – a preacher and a schoolteacher who had sacrificed so much to make sure I got a good education and a good job. And I remember the night before I was supposed to start at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, when my father called and said, “I love you, I believe in you, but I think if you called your old law firm, they’d probably take you back.”
I had to think about why I really wanted to make that change, in the face of their concerns and my own, as well as other people who told me I was “wasting the opportunities I had been given.” And I told my father then what I will tell you now: that after all I had been given by them, after getting an education in school and in life, if all I could ever do was one thing at one place, that would be the true waste of their sacrifices, of all my opportunities and of their faith in me. Of course, I didn’t call my old law firm, and I didn’t go back. I chose the path of public service and became a prosecutor. And along the way I found my calling in protecting the most vulnerable among us and in working to ensure the integrity of the criminal justice system. My path has taken me from the courtrooms of Brooklyn to a war crime tribunal in East Africa, from the conference rooms of private practice to the halls of the Department of Justice to the chair of the Attorney General. And I could have predicted none of it when I sat in your graduation seat. Thirty years ago, Thurgood Marshall said that the goal of our democracy should be that “any baby born in these United States is…endowed with the exact same rights as a child born to a Rockefeller. Of course it’s not true,” he said. “It never will be true. But I challenge anybody to tell me that it isn’t the type of goal we should try to get to as fast as we can.”
That was the light that illuminated his path. Not the expectations of others, but his own vision of a goal worth fighting for. That’s what motivated Charlotte Ray and Pauli Murray, Charles Hamilton Houston and Martin Luther King. That’s what motivated the young lawyer you heard from earlier today, who – fresh out of law school – turned down prestigious clerkships and lucrative law firm offers to choose the path of a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. Who could have predicted that it was also the path to the White House?
People often ask how I achieved a particular position, but a particular position was never my goal – a particular effect was. I still walk the path I chose those many years and jobs ago, and what still lights my way is the opportunity to help bridge the gap between what is and what should be.
That’s what I am privileged to do at the Department of Justice every day, with the help of a number of graduates from Howard Law. We are protecting the American people from terrorism, cyber attacks and violent crime, so that every individual can freely and fearlessly experience life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We are standing up against corruption and organized crime, so that this nation can truly stand for the people. We are fighting to protect and expand civil rights and voting rights, so that everyone in this country can enjoy what President Lyndon Johnson called “the full blessings of American life.” And we are making our system of criminal justice more effective, more efficient, and above all, more fair – so that no person’s access to justice depends on their means; so that police and the communities they serve and protect can forge vital bonds of mutual support, respect and trust; and so that individuals who have made mistakes can serve an appropriate sentence that is followed by a “new birth of freedom,” and a true return home. From the most powerful organizations to the most vulnerable individuals, we are working to ensure that in every case, in every instance, across the country and around the world, opportunity flourishes and justice is done.
We are not there yet. But as Thurgood Marshall recognized, this country is a land of aspirations – from the founding fathers who gathered to codify inalienable rights into law; to the slaves and abolitionists alike who fought to cleanse this country’s original sin; to the activists who looked out from the mountaintop and saw the Promised Land and marched to get us all a little bit closer; to those of us here today who can imagine a brighter world just beyond the horizon.
At every turn – in times of victory and defeat – we have been driven by dreams not yet realized; by promises not yet met; by pronouncements not yet true. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” “One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” “Free at last, free at last – thank God almighty, we are free at last.” These are our deepest convictions and our highest aspirations. We struggle still to make them a manifest reality. But they illuminate the path that I have chosen and that I hope many of you will join. As graduates of this renowned law school, you are going to encounter a great number of extraordinary opportunities in your lives. People will offer you money, and influence, and a chance to make your name in a position of power. But if I can leave you with only one thought, let it be this. It is not the title you bear, but the lives that you touch that will define your contributions to this great profession of ours. You can and you will make a difference in this world, even if the only thing after your name is a period.
And so, as you move forward from this hallowed place that still echoes with the footsteps of men and women – famous and unknown – who helped shape this country into a living monument to progress, I ask you to look for the light that will illuminate your path. I urge you to find the lives you will touch. And when you are called upon to make that leap of faith into the unknown, know that you have all that you need to find your way. You have the grounding of this great institution. You have the love of your families. And you have the faith of all of us who open our arms to welcome you into this most noble profession of ours.
Congratulations to you all. I cannot wait to see what you will achieve.