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May 28, 2009

NAACP president exhorts Pitt law grads to improve on U.S. Constitution

“You already know the breadth and the limits of our Constitution,” Benjamin Todd Jealous told the 2009 graduates of the School of Law at a May 15 ceremony. “The greatest question before you now, the one that will define your personal legacy, is: What will you do with the privilege and the power you are about to receive? Will you merely glorify the Constitution as it stands, or will you make it better than what’s in it currently?”

Jealous, who is the 17th and youngest president and CEO of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP), noted that 2009 falls right in step as a transformational year in U.S. history with 1809, when Abraham Lincoln was born, and 1909, when the NAACP was founded.

“Your careers are being born at this moment, in 2009,” he said. “Lincoln lived the dream of uniting America, with basic human rights, with basic human dignity for all people. The NAACP’s special mission in the last century was to enforce those basic human rights, known as civil rights, and to outlaw Jim Crow, using Jim Crow’s rules in Jim Crow’s courts before Jim Crow’s judges.”

The special mission of the class of 2009 is equally bold, he said. “It must be about enforcing our existing contract of the Constitution, but it must also be about extending it and amending it. It must be about enforcing civil rights and realizing human rights. In short, it must be about finally making the American dream real for all families in this country, for all people in this country,” said Jealous, who, prior to joining the NAACP, served as president of the Rosenberg Foundation, a private institution that funds civil and human rights advocacy in California. Before that, he was director of the U.S. human rights program at Amnesty International.

In a way, Jealous said, the class of ’09 is among the generation that changed the nation before even graduating.

“What a year this has been so far. What a moment for you to go forth into the world,” Jealous said. “Four years ago before you started law school, everything in this nation said that only one gender of people, only one race of people, only people with vaguely British-sounding last names could truly compete in the political arena.”

With the election of Barack Obama, “all of that has changed. No matter your views, no matter who you supported in the last presidential election, no matter what party you align yourself with, we fought the fair fight for the future of this country and we are all better for it,” he said.

“Our generation, our peers — you, me, we — we know that the contest now is based on merit, that the contest will be played by fair rules. You, members of the class of ’09, will always carry the badge of honor of having been part of this moment in time when we strive to renew the greatness of our country.”

Obama’s inauguration signals a watershed in the world’s perception of the United States, Jealous maintained. “The inauguration wasn’t just the people in D.C. celebrating, it was about the world gazing on amazed as this country once again transformed itself and established itself as a beacon of the globe,” he said. “There was a genuine sense that everything’s possible when a guy with a funny name, whose father was an African, is the president of the United States,” after a close battle for the Democratic Party nomination with a woman, another positive indicator that the nation has changed, he said.

But for all the hopefulness that an Obama presidency symbolizes, the country still exhibits a dichotomy that the newly minted law graduates must address, Jealous said.

The day after the inauguration, “families woke up across this country with dads still out of work, with moms still not paid enough, with kids going to schools that are an embarrassment to everything this country stands for, while too many neighbors are in prison, too many people die of AIDS. The levels of segregation in city public schools exceed levels of 50 years ago.”

Poverty abounds, “and far too many people in this country feel too powerless, too scared, too stressed out by the bill collectors to do anything. They are wrong; one can always do something,” Jealous said. “But you, especially, have no reason to wallow in such nonsense. You will be practicing lawyers. You are about to join the ranks of the high priests of our democracy.”

That stature and clout carry a heavy responsibility, he maintained. Law graduates should not be content with the status quo, but should work to change the country and the Constitution for the better.

For example, he said, “When you get down to it, [the Constitution] has no right for citizens to complete an education, let alone a good education. You can help make that change. Are you satisfied that in this country torture is constitutional so long as it’s popular? In other words, I’m here to invite you to join me and the NAACP in extending the transforming legacy of our country.”

He challenged the graduates to test their beliefs against existing law.

“Some day soon, after all the celebration and the parties are over and you’re done being hung-over, after you’ve finished studying for the bar exam, pull out a sheet of paper and list all the things that you believe are components of the American dream, the rights you believe you have as an American,” Jealous recommended.

“Then pull out the Constitution and go through every article and every amendment and check off the rights you believe we have that are actually covered. Then stare at the ones you have not checked off. In that moment, pick one and commit to yourself that before you die you will add one more check to that list.”

Jealous said he was not pushing any specific area of law for the graduates to pursue.

“Let me be clear, I’m not here to invite you to be any particular type of lawyer; we need all kinds in this country,” he said. “I’m here to invite you to become an engaged citizen, the kind who takes the twin responsibility — to defend our Constitution and to find and to completely realize our national dream — as seriously as you take your profession.”

At the May 15 ceremony held at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial, the University conferred 232 Juris Doctor degrees, 15 Master of Laws degrees, eight Master of Studies in Law degrees and one certificate in disability legal studies, the first to be awarded since the program began in 2006.

David Harris received the law school’s Excellence-in-Teaching Award, which is voted on by the graduating class. A national authority on racial profiling, Harris teaches courses that focus on police behavior and regulation, law enforcement and national security issues and the law.

He told the class of 2009 he was touched by the award and surprised given his relatively new position on the faculty.

“Being a lawyer is a great privilege, but it’s also a great responsibility, in the sense that the crowning jewel, the most important thing our country has, is the rule of law and justice. You in a very real way as a lawyer become custodians of that. You carry it with you. You live it,” Harris told the 2009 graduates.

“As you go out into the world always remember that the rule of law is in your hands and in your care. When it falls to someone to explain why the law is the way it is and what’s important about it, you do that because you’re the ones who can ensure, as we all go forward, that the rule of law stays alive and vital and that justice will be done.”

At the graduation ceremony, Dean Mary Crossley acknowledged two faculty members, William Luneburg Jr. and Margaret Mahoney, for completing 30 years at the law school.

—Peter Hart

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