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Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Delivers Commencement Address to the Harvard Classes of 2020 and 2021


Cambridge, MA
United States

Remarks as Delivered 

Thank you, President Bacow, for this extraordinary honor. And for your kind, but overly generous introduction.

And thank you to my wife, Lynn, Harvard Class of 1982 (Applause), for listening to President Bacow’s introduction without laughing out loud at the overly generous parts.

It truly is an honor to be here today to offer my own “welcome back” to the patient and indomitable Classes of 2020 and 2021.

And it is an honor to be here with your families and loved ones to celebrate with you.

I know it must be a little strange to be back here: not as soon-to-be graduates anxious about the future, but as actual graduates – anxious about the future. (Laughter.)

It does relieve the pressure on me, though, knowing that today I am speaking at your 10-year reunion instead of your graduation. Yes, 2020 through 2021 was a long decade for all of us. (Laughter and Applause.)

And it is a great comfort to see all of you in your robes. You look like little judges. I feel right at home. (Laughter.)

I know that because of the pandemic, your experience was not entirely what you had expected. Life does not always turn out the way you expect. Trust me on that. (Laughter.)

But it is a great honor to recognize the extraordinary resilience you have shown. We are all very, very proud of you.

I also want to acknowledge an additional, impossible kind of resilience that your generation has been asked to weather.

As we gather today to celebrate this milestone in your life, we are also holding onto an enormous amount of grief because of yet another mass shooting at another school in our country.

An unspeakable act of violence has devastated families and an entire community in Uvalde, Texas. I know I speak for all of us here that our hearts are broken.

Before that horrific attack – and before the horrific attack in Laguna Woods and the horrific attack in Buffalo – I had decided I wanted to make this speech about public service. About what each of us owes to each other, and about what we all owe as residents of a democracy.

I still want to talk about public service today because these tragedies only underscore how urgent the call to public service for your generation truly is. And because of a promise I made when I first came to Harvard.

Standing on this stage today would have been a great surprise to the 17-year-old me who first set foot on this campus. In my mind, I am still the scholarship kid whose parents drove him all the way to Cambridge from Illinois in a car bulging with suitcases and excitement.

I had no idea what a Final Club was. (Laughter.) I assumed it was a group of students who got together to study for final exams. (Laughter.)

When I arrived at Harvard, I hoped to become a doctor because I saw it as the best way to help people directly.

I had a pre-med scholarship provided by a company in my hometown, which the University generously supplemented.

But despite many personal tutorials by my roommate and best friend, it eventually became clear that the pre-med prerequisites were not my forte. (Laughter.)

So, I went to my scholarship advisor to say I was switching fields and would have to give up the scholarship. I was sorry I had let him down, I said. Sorry that I did not know how I would be able to continue without the financial support.

And even sorrier that my goal of a career in service had been thwarted.

To my astonishment, he said I could keep the scholarship. There are lots of ways to serve the public, he explained. And you should choose the way that you are best at.

There was only one requirement, he said. I would have to promise to devote some part of my life to public service.

I have tried to keep that promise.

And in doing so, I have also tried to repay a debt that I feel I owe.

Before World War I, this country gave my family a refuge from religious persecution that allowed them to survive the Holocaust when World War II arrived. (Applause.)

My grandmother was one of five children born in what is now Belarus. Four of the siblings tried to come to the United States. Three made it. The fourth was turned back at Ellis Island. And the fifth did not try.

The two who stayed behind died in the Holocaust.

So, for me, public service is a way to repay the debt my family owes to this country for our very lives. (Applause.)

I know that you all worked very hard to get here. So did I. But for different reasons, the fact that we are all here today makes us lucky. So I hope you will make a promise similar to the one that I made: to devote some part of your life to public service.

As my advisor said, there are many ways to serve the public.

Some of you will decide to devote your entire lives to providing service to others.

And on this Memorial Day weekend, I particularly want to recognize those among you who have served, or will be serving, or are serving our country in uniform. We all owe you our gratitude.

I also want to recognize those of you who are preparing already to begin your service in fields as wide ranging as working in government or NGOs, teaching, running for office, and dozens of others.

And to those of you who found chemistry easier than I did, I am in awe. (Laughter.) As we worry about the possibility of future pandemics, we need people to devote their lives to medicine and scientific research. (Applause.)

Fulfilling this promise can also mean devoting parts of your career to service, depending on the other obligations you incur as you go through life.

Or it can mean serving others directly by volunteering to provide one-on-one services to those who need them. And here, I want to give a shoutout to the students at Harvard Law School and other area law schools whom I met with yesterday. You and other students answered my call to provide legal representation for families threatened by eviction during the pandemic. (Applause.) Your work kept those families safe. I am grateful for your service.

Earlier in my career, I spent weeks in Oklahoma City investigating the bombing of a federal building, as the president said. I saw – and I felt – how consequential an outpouring of volunteer services could be. Oklahomans lined up to offer care and comfort to those who were hurting – survivors and first responders, neighbors and strangers alike.

But it should not take a tragedy to prompt us to look for ways, that day in and day out, we can help those who need our help.

And from my personal experience, I can tell you that public service benefits not just those you serve, but you as well. When you are facing life’s unanticipated twists and turns – and I assure you, they will come – it can be a great solace to get outside of yourself. To focus on helping someone else.

So, don’t let your generation be defined by the pandemic. Let it be defined by public service. (Applause.)

There is one particular reason that makes my call to public service especially urgent for your generation. It is an urgency that should move each of you, regardless of the career you choose. It is the urgent need to defend democracy. (Applause.)

Both at home and abroad, we are seeing the many ways in which democracy is under threat.

I want to start with democracy abroad, as I am well aware of the international students in this audience. Harvard has come a long way since my day – when you were counted as geographically diverse if you came from the Midwest. (Laughter.)

When I was graduating from college, there were many things to worry about in the outside world, including the threat of another land war in Europe. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, that threat seemed to recede from the possible to the improbable.

Now that land war is upon us. Russia’s unprovoked and unjust invasion of Ukraine this February has been accompanied by heart-breaking atrocities: murders of civilians, the shelling of hospitals, the bombing of a theater in Mariupol where hundreds had sought shelter, the demolished residential apartment buildings of Bucha and other cities.

There are, and there will be, many lessons to draw from the current conflict.

But if anything can pull us together as a country and as an international community – and make clear the stake we all have in the success of democracy both at home and abroad – this heinous invasion by an authoritarian government is it. (Applause.)

At home, we are also facing threats to democracy – different in kind, but threats, nonetheless.

We see them in efforts to undermine the right to vote.

We see them in the violence and threats of violence that are directed at people because of who they are or how they serve the public.

We saw them when a violent mob stormed the United States Capitol in an attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power.

First, I want to talk to you about the right to vote.

Shortly before I started high school, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, thanks to the persistent calls to action of the Civil Rights Movement. That Act gave the Justice Department important tools to protect the cornerstone of our democracy – the right of all eligible citizens to vote.

But while many of you were in high school, the Supreme Court significantly weakened those protections. And while you were in college or graduate school, court decisions weakened them even further.

Following those decisions, there has been a dramatic increase in legislative efforts that make it harder for millions of eligible voters to vote and to elect representatives of their own choice.

Those efforts threaten the foundation of our system of government. And there may be worse to come.

Some have even suggested giving state legislatures the power to set aside the choice of the voters themselves.

That is not the way a representative democracy is supposed to work.

As I said before, when I was sitting where you are sitting today, there were many things to worry about. But it never occurred to me that the right to vote would again be threatened in this country.

At the same time that we are witnessing efforts to undermine the right to vote, we are also witnessing violence and threats of violence that undermine the rule of law upon which our democracy is based.  

We have all seen the violence and threats of violence that have been directed at people solely because of who they are, where they are from, what they look like, whom they love, how they worship, or what they believe.

Just weeks ago, we witnessed the horrific attack that took the lives of 10 Black Americans, and injured three others, in Buffalo, New York. The Justice Department is investigating that act as a hate crime and an act of racially motivated violent extremism. (Applause.)

We have also seen the violence and threats of violence directed against Americans who serve and interact with the public at every level — many of whom make our democracy work every day.

These are our fellow citizens — who administer our elections, ensure our safe travel, treat the sick, teach the children, report the news, represent their constituents, ensure the rule of law, and keep our communities safe.

These threats and acts of violence are permeating so many parts of our national life that they are becoming normalized and routine.

This is deeply dangerous for our democracy.

In a democracy, people vote, argue, and debate – often loudly – in order to achieve the policy outcome they desire.

But the promise of democracy is that people will not employ violence to affect that outcome.

And yet, we saw that promise tested on January 6, 2021.

On that day, as the United States Congress was meeting to certify the vote count of the Electoral College, a large crowd violently forced entry into the Capitol.

We all watched as police officers were punched, dragged, tased, and beaten.

We saw journalists targeted, assaulted, tackled, and harassed.

Members of Congress had to be evacuated.

And proceedings were disrupted for hours — interfering with a fundamental element of American democracy: the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next.

Like the threat to voting rights, this kind of direct attack on an American institution is something I never worried about as I was graduating from college. There had been such attacks on foreign capitals in foreign lands. But a storming of the U.S. Capitol itself had not taken place since the War of 1812.

Our country’s institutions – like the Department I lead – are central to the effort to defend our democracy.

The Justice Department was founded for exactly that purpose in the midst of Reconstruction following the Civil War. Its first principal task was to battle with white supremacists – particularly the Ku Klux Klan – who violently sought to prevent Black Americans from exercising their constitutional rights.

Defending democracy remains our urgent charge today.

Today, we are assisting international efforts to identify and hold accountable those responsible for the atrocities in Ukraine.

And we have launched a task force to freeze and seize the assets of those who enable the Russian government to continue its unjust war.

Here at home, we are undertaking one of the largest investigations in our history to hold accountable everyone who was criminally responsible for the January 6 assault on our democracy. (Applause.) We will follow the facts wherever they lead.

We are doing everything within our power to stop the hate crimes that terrorize entire communities.

We will hold accountable those who direct violence and illegal threats of violence against those who serve the public.

And we will continue to use every tool we have left to protect the right to vote. At the same time, we will continue to ask Congress to pass legislation to ensure that every eligible voter can cast a vote that counts. (Applause.)

We will never stop working to fulfill our founding purpose to defend democracy.

But we cannot do this work alone. We need you. The responsibility to preserve democracy, and to maintain faith in its legitimacy, lies with all of us.

And that brings me back to the promise I made here at Harvard many years ago, and to what I am asking of you today – to devote some part of your lives to service.

Those who will spend all or parts of your career in public service can build and rebuild the institutions upon which a functioning democracy depends.

Those of you who will dedicate a part of your lives to community service can stitch back together the fabric of our civil society. You can overcome the polarization that is tearing us apart.

And all of us must take care in the way we treat each other. We must persuade our neighbors and our communities to reject the idea that violence or threats of violence are acceptable. We must work to dissipate the hatred that fuels such violence.

A democracy cannot survive if its citizens forsake the rule of law in favor of violence or threats of violence. We are all in this together. We must protect each other. (Applause.)

Finally, the preservation of democracy requires our willingness to tell the truth. Together, we must ensure that the magnitude of an event like January 6th is not downplayed or understated. The commitment to the peaceful transfer of power must be respected by every American. Our democracy depends upon it. (Applause.)

In an editorial published shortly after his death, the great civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis recalled an important lesson taught by Dr. Martin Luther King: “Democracy is not a state….It is an act. And each generation must do its part ….” (Applause.)

Now you are that generation.

You are the next generation that must devote part of your lives to public service.

You are the next generation that must devote yourselves to preserving our democracy and helping others protect theirs.

And although what I am asking of you is daunting, I know that you are the next generation that will fulfill the promise this country represents.

I know that our democracy will be stronger by the time it is your turn to pass the baton.

Now go out there and use your hard-earned degrees to make the world a better place. After a raucous – but of course legal – celebration. (Laughter and Applause.)

Congratulations, again, Classes of 2020 and 2021. (Applause.)

Updated May 29, 2022