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Eric Holder at the Howard University School of Law Hooding and Degree Ceremony


Washington, DC
United States



Remarks as prepared for delivery.




          Good morning. Graduates, parents and family, distinguished faculty, I am pleased and honored to be with you on this day of celebration. I want to express my congratulations to all of the graduates and applaud your achievement. But the graduates know, better than anyone else, that there is another set of people who deserve to be congratulated–people who supported them emotionally, intellectually and, of course, financially. I speak of course of their parents, relatives, spouses and friends and to you, I give my congratulations as well.

As graduates, you probably assume that today marks the end, as well as the culminating achievement, of three years of hard work. You have studied hard, you have performed well, you have risen to meet daunting intellectual challenges. But there is an important reality all of you must face, and it is that today is not the end of your training or of your toil – it is only the beginning.

In the competitive academic world you have inhabited for so long, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that you are members of an elite corps of well-educated Americans. You are the privileged few. Many Americans do not reach college, let alone law school, and having received your training at an institution of this caliber qualifies you for many kinds of success in the legal profession. But with your new status must come a sense of obligation.

Some of you have probably already chosen the path of “service,” understanding that to mean a specific kind of law you plan to practice. I challenge each and every one of you today to recognize that you are all public servants – with contributions to make to your communities and to this great Nation – regardless of your choice of practice. Public service is not a career path, one that some people freely choose and others do not, nor is it an extracurricular activity, for which only some professionals will find the time in their busy lives. As lawyers, you are all servants of the public. Whether your clients are multibillion dollar corporations, juvenile offenders, evicted tenants, or the government, you must also give the people the benefit of your expertise and serve them ably and faithfully as well.

Society has made a huge investment in you. You have had the luxury – yes, the luxury – of three years spent studying the laws of this Nation, and now it is your turn to give back. From today forward, you have an obligation to improve the world around you. Our laws themselves are the products of Americans who felt that sense of obligation – from George Washington risking his life to achieve independence – to Abraham Lincoln risking the life of this nation to achieve emancipation – to the Reverend Martin Luther King giving his life to achieve legal equality for all Americans.

I know that today is the last day most of you will spend on an academic campus, and that the last thing you want to hear on this day of liberation is that you are forever bound by obligation. But that is the truth. Of those to whom much is given, much is expected. This is in keeping with the service tradition of this great law school. You must embrace your responsibilities, indeed welcome them, with the same spirit of passion and dedication that you have used in your successful academic careers. You must dedicate a portion of your energy and compassion to those less fortunate. I do not just mean that you should help provide legal services to the disadvantaged. That is, of course, very important. But there is much, much more to it than that. After all, many of the problems our nation faces today are not legal. They are the products of social and economic ills. And they require your attention. There are children in our cities who are starved for the kind of attention you can give. There are people who have lost their way who can be helped by the direction you can share. You can reach out to schools, youth centers, and churches, mosques and synagogues to spread your knowledge and your good works.

If being on the front line is impossible for you, and I frankly don’t know why it would be, then help out those unsung leaders already hard at work in our community. The people who truly deserve our respect – the people who work hard and play by the rules – the people who teach our children, who minister to us when we are ill, who go to work every day in search of a better life – these people are too often ignored by us. We should glory in their work and in the positive effect they have. A person who can teach a child to read is infinitely more valuable to our society than a person with a good jump shot. We must find our heroes in the people who truly contribute to the betterment of our community. And you must each strive to emulate and support their heroic efforts however, and whenever, we can.

Sitting before me today I see the future of our Nation. This may sound like a premature assertion and even an exaggerated one. I am, however, quite sure that here today are future judges, lawfirm partners, policymakers – in short, future leaders. I see a group of talented, energetic young people with the work ethic, the training, and the drive to succeed. What excites me is not your apparent abilities, however – though you certainly merit praise for those – but your possibilities – the prospect that you might devote yourselves to the task of building a better America, a better world.

Let me assert an unassailable conclusion: the fact that you have prodigious talents does not guarantee that you will make a substantial contribution to society. That achievement will not be the product of your law school grades, the prestige of your job, or the level of your income. It will not even be the product of the good values you may hold dear. It can only result from your own initiative and actions. The way to make a contribution to your community is to put your talent and your values into action. I implore you not to let an ounce of your promise go unfulfilled. You owe it to yourselves, to your families gathered here today, and to the society that has watched and helped you flourish and which now deserves to reap the benefits of your growth.

You will be leaders, and leaders need to exemplify this commitment to community. With power and wealth must come responsibility and caring. You must realize that you possess real and symbolic power as lawyers and understand that you can change the whole of America for the better. But if the power you possess is to change things for the better it must be used. To those of you who know you do not do enough, I say: do something. To those of you who think you have done all that you can, I say: do more. If you have truly done all that you are able to do, and there are truly very few of you, then you must get others involved in the fight for our cities, our children, our nation and our future.

There is not one path to succeeding in your careers. For I believe that many of you will find success in all sorts of ways that we cannot even begin to envision today. But even when you succeed, there are going to be some rough days. Your task is not only to be true to yourself during those difficult times, it is also to continue to be loving and dedicated to your families and your communities as well. Neglecting your communities, whether to further your own success or to drown and excuse your failures, is wrong. And neglecting your family for these reasons is even worse.

In closing, I issue you a challenge today: to commit your professional lives to something higher than profit or power. I challenge you to make your primary objective not doing well, but doing good in the world. If not now, then when? And if not you, the best and the brightest, then who? I implore all of you to embrace the coming years and make them your own. I urge you to craft new solutions to the old problems that continue to bedevil us and find innovative, contemporary ways to deal with future concerns. Always remember that positive change is possible. Never forget that problems made by men and women are susceptible to solutions crafted by men and women, as well. You must not look at this imperfect world and consign yourself to merely existing in it. You must use your formidable skills and the power that you have, or will acquire, to make it better.

The time is now. The responsibility is yours. Good luck and Godspeed.

Updated August 20, 2015