Holder exhorts BU grads to take on challenges

US Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr.steered clear of terrorism in his commencement address at BU. US Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr.steered clear of terrorism in his commencement address at BU. (Pat Greenhouse/ Globe Staff)
By Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / May 17, 2010

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Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the first black leader of the US Department of Justice, urged 6,200 graduates of Boston University yesterday to follow the example of alumnus Martin Luther King Jr. and become “stars in the darkness,’’ fulfilling their obligation as educated Americans to confront the challenges facing the country.

The attorney general, nominated by President Obama and sworn in last year, addressed a buoyant commencement crowd of 20,000 at sun-drenched Nickerson Field.

His appearance followed a hectic week in the federal investigation of the attempted Times Square bombing, including the raid of a Watertown home and the arrests of two men who lived there.

But Holder mostly steered clear of the subject of terrorism, instead invoking the memory of King, Abraham Lincoln, and his own sister-in-law, the late Vivian Malone Jones, one of two black students to desegregate the University of Alabama in 1963.

“She moved forward through the darkness,’’ he said, and “her example serves as a reminder that each of us has the power to make a difference.’’

Like other speakers at the commencement, Holder gave special attention to the members of BU’s class of 1970, seated in the front rows in their caps and bright red gowns.

The class was invited to participate in this year’s ceremony, 40 years after their own BU commencement was canceled after tumultuous student protests and the deaths of four students at Kent State University in Ohio.

“I love you all,’’ Holder told the crowd, but added, beaming down at the gray-haired grads, “these are my people.’’

A New York City native whose father emigrated from Barbados, Holder graduated from Columbia University in 1973 and Columbia Law School in 1976. Before becoming attorney general, he served as US attorney for the District of Columbia and as the first black deputy attorney general.

He reminded graduates yesterday that progress is ongoing, despite the shadows of terrorism and injustice. For the first time, he said, Massachusetts has a black governor and the country has a black president.

“And, although this is painful for me to say as a born and bred New Yorker, the Red Sox and the Celtics were world champions,’’ said Holder jocularly. “Now that’s the stuff of miracles — bad miracles.’’

He applauded the students’ work for the public good, including their fund-raising for Haitian earthquake relief, and urged them to deepen their commitment.

“Progress is the product of darkness, not light,’’ Holder said. “It was social frustration, and moral imperative, that brought an end to slavery and segregation . . . that provided health care for our seniors and our poor. These advancements were not inevitable, and they must never be taken for granted,’’ he said.

Others paid similar tribute to the civil rights and social justice gains of previous decades. Student speaker Jonathan L. Priester lauded BU for admitting black students — including his mother and father, who met at the school — “at a time when sitting in a public restaurant could get you arrested.’’

Kenneth J. Feld, a university trustee and 1970 graduate who helped orchestrate the long-delayed return of his class to commencement, described how BU canceled exams and sent students home early that spring.

“They were turbulent times, but they were what defined us,’’ Feld said. “Today, we . . . complete the journey we began 40 years ago.’’

About 200 members of the class — 3,000 of whom received their diplomas by mail in 1970 — attended commencement this weekend. At a smaller ceremony yesterday morning, they erupted spontaneously into the 1969 protest anthem “Give Peace A Chance,’’ many in tears.

Class member Amy Weiner Nathans traveled from Ohio to don cap and gown, four decades late.

“I feel gratified and humbled,’’ she said. “That they remembered us, and included us.’’

Attendees at the commencement gave a standing ovation to honorary degree recipient William T. Coleman Jr., a civil rights lawyer whose work on the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education helped persuade the Supreme Court to outlaw school segregation.

Honorary degrees were also awarded to Holder; Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee, the author of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’’; Egyptian-born AIDS researcher Wafaa El-Sadr, who BU president Robert A. Brown described as a “rock star of public health’’; and Osamu Shimomura, the Woods Hole scientist who shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Jenna Russell can be reached at

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