Keynote Speaker: Eric H. Holder, Jr. ’76
Former United States Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., is an internationally recognized leader across a broad range of regulatory enforcement, criminal justice, and national security issues.
Dean Lester; distinguished faculty, staff, and administration; proud parents, family, and friends; and—most importantly—Class of 2016: Congratulations on this extraordinary day.
It is a privilege to share in this moment, as we celebrate your achievements over the past three years—and mark the beginning of your service to the law. You are no longer students of the law—you are now stewards of the judicial system. It is a pleasure to stand with those who have loved and supported you every step along the way. And it is wonderful, as always, to be home at Columbia Law School.
It was here in New York City—just a few subway stops away, in the Bronx, Harlem, and Queens—that my own journey began. It was in this city that my desire to serve our nation’s justice system first took hold. And it was on this campus, in Morningside Heights—as an undergraduate and, later, as a law student—that I came to understand that the law is not an abstraction, but a strong, deft instrument for positive societal change.
The Vietnam War. The women’s movement. The stirrings of gay pride. The rise of black consciousness. The feeling, more than anything, that all things are possible, and that the world can be changed: these are what made my time at Columbia exciting and memorable.
I recall one day, as an undergraduate, when my classmates and I decided to peacefully occupy one of the campus offices. We felt passionately about the need for a place on campus where black students could gather. So we staged a sit-in.
As you may know, a couple of blogs recently alleged that I was armed during this peaceful occupation. Now, I’ve never addressed this publicly, so allow me to clear it up: I was armed to the teeth—with my textbooks, which were certainly heavy enough to do serious damage, and yes with “45’s”—which is what we called two song records back then. That one was for your parents and professors.
The target of our occupation was the old Naval ROTC office. We negotiated with Dean Henry Coleman—a wonderful, generous man. After negotiating with him, we succeeded in establishing a black students’ lounge in what was then Hartley Hall. Later, in the ultimate display of chutzpah, I asked Dean Coleman to write me a letter of recommendation for law school.
This being Columbia, of course he agreed. That is one of the many, many reasons why I love this place and always marvel at it.
Those years, and those College and Law School memories, often draw me emotionally back to Morningside Heights—no matter where I physically am. And even though 2016 marks the 40th year since I graduated from this law school, my time at Columbia shaped and enriched my life in ways that I am still realizing, and continue to appreciate.
So it will be with each of you, as well.
As you take leave of this great institution—and take your place among the ranks of Columbia’s distinguished alumni—I invite you to pause, take a breath, and look around you: at the classmates with whom you have shared many memorable moments, the faculty members who have mentored and challenged you, the place—and the people—that have made each of us “perhaps better than we are.”
I hope you will never lose the sense of possibility—and optimism—that has led you here this afternoon. Because you are about to step into a world that is far from certain. A world beset by challenges. A world that will increasingly look to you—as leaders, and as lawyers—to confront the momentous questions before us.
Graduates, I can imagine no more exciting—or consequential—time to join the legal ranks. Our profession is changing faster than ever before. And our nation is at a crossroads.
We stand at a potentially great inflection point in our history. And the principal question we face, in 2016—the question you must help answer—is not merely who will win the White House, and control the executive branch, for the next four years.
As important as it is to pick a president, the choice we face is much larger. It is reflective of deep concerns—and deep disagreement—about the arc we are on, the composition of our national character, and the direction of this country.
The question is whether we will allow ourselves to be pulled backwards, in misguided pursuit of an idealized past that was far from ideal for far too many. Or whether this rising generation—your generation—will lead us into the more just, more equal, and more inclusive future that, together, we must build.
That is the challenge before you.
And that is where true greatness lives: not in pursuit of some imagined age gone by, but in forging a more just future. In the act of reaching higher. And in the difficult and too often dangerous work of pulling this country closer to its founding ideals.
In many ways, this has been the story of the past eight years: a story of difficult, grinding, and oftentimes unglamorous—but undeniable—progress.
If this progress looks messy in the harsh glare of the 24-hour news cycle, let me tell you: That’s because it is messy. It is frustrating, it is wrenching, and it is emotionally draining—every single day.
But contributing to this progress happens to be the single greatest privilege we have as American citizens—and is our unique responsibility as stewards of the law. Because out of that messiness comes justice. Progress. The more perfect Union we seek. The beloved community that we attempt to make real.
I believe every American should take enormous pride in what we have achieved over the past eight years. But nowhere is this progress more alive than in our nation’s legal system, thanks to the tireless work of lawyers throughout our profession.
Together, over the past eight years, we have proven the ability and capacity of the greatest court system in the world—by bringing the toughest national security cases into that system, by keeping the American people safe, and by holding terrorists accountable—all while adhering to the values that define us as a nation. The debate about where national security cases should be tried is over. Take it from me, as someone who received a threat briefing every morning for six years: Our nation is both safer and stronger as a result.
Over the past eight years, we have also defended that “most basic” of American rights, the right to vote, against an onslaught—the likes of which this country has not seen since the days of Jim Crow. We weathered a devastating and wrongly decided Supreme Court decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act, the single most important piece of civil rights legislation ever passed.
As a result of that Supreme Court decision, we have seen laws passed by some legislatures—designed to discourage and disenfranchise—that would prevent millions of Americans from making their voices heard. We must continue to stand firm against any attempt to restrict access to the ballot box—because we have seen how such attempts undermine the very foundations of our democracy by frustrating change and the ability to challenge an entrenched status quo.
Over the past eight years, we have also stood for equality—and against discrimination—by fighting for the rights of LGBT Americans. We secured a landmark Supreme Court ruling—the Brown v. Board of our lifetimes—that affirmed a constitutional right to marriage equality.
Yet, across the country, the rights, and the basic dignity, of transgender Americans and lesbian and gay Americans have come under renewed assault under the guise of “religious liberty” and states’ rights. Having seen these concepts used before in a different era about a different movement towards progress, it is both distressingly familiar and equally chilling. It is incumbent upon all of us—and especially members of the bench and bar—to challenge discrimination, intolerance, and bigotry wherever it is found, and most especially when it is imbued with the force of law.
Finally, over the past eight years, we have also begun to reform a criminal justice system that too often separates those who valiantly serve from the people who need their protection the most. For the first time in more than four decades, we reduced both the crime rate and the incarceration rate simultaneously—a truly historic achievement.
Yet, across the country, well-intentioned but misguided criminal justice policies continue to send too many people to too many prisons for far too long—too often for no good law enforcement reason. The impact of these policies on our communities—and communities of color in particular—has been nothing less than devastating. It has been profoundly unjust. And it betrays the very principles upon which our system was founded, and which every legal professional is sworn to uphold.
This is why, despite the history we have made and the obstacles we’ve overcome—despite the fact that our reform efforts have come a long way—in matters of national security, voting rights, LGBT equality, criminal justice reform, and other areas—our work, your work, is anything but finished.
And the next chapter of our history—the chapter you will begin to write the moment you walk across this stage—has the potential to be even more consequential than the last. Your duty is to make certain that “what might be possible” does not become “what might have been.”
Graduates, I will not deny that there may be some very small subset of Americans for whom this country at least seemed greater at some earlier time.
But for the overwhelming majority of Americans—women, gays, and lesbians, the disabled, the impoverished, Hispanics, and for people who look like me and President Obama—America’s best moment is happening right now. And in reality, this is the best time for ALL Americans: at this very moment—the moment you’re graduating into.
Today is better than yesterday. Tomorrow will be better still. And our country has been on this path since long before I sat where you do.
We have been on this path since young lawyers pledged allegiance to one another in Philadelphia and challenged the world’s greatest empire, since our forebears amended the Constitution to remove the original sin of slavery—and then expanded the voting franchise to include people of color, women, and young people.
We have been on this path since a president and a King came together to harness a “rising tide of discontent,” declaring—with one voice—that segregation was not justice, that discrimination had no place in our society, and that it was time to remake America’s institutions to reflect our dearest values: a process that led us from Selma to Stonewall, and that continues even today.
And we have been on this path since great leaders like Constance Baker Motley, Jack Greenberg, and so many others from the Columbia community—your predecessors and mine—seized an opportunity to prove that separate was inherently unequal. That institutional racism was holding America back. And that a little girl named Linda Brown, from Topeka, Kansas, had a constitutional right to attend school alongside her peers of all races—no matter what her board of education had to say.
Never forget, graduates, that great leaps forward—including seminal moments like Brown v. Board—do not happen by accident, or by chance. And they are not pre-ordained. They are born of hard work, perseverance, struggle—and sacrifice.
Never forget that progress is attained, and the arc of our history is bent, not only by towering giants—as we sometimes remember the great figures of our past—but most usually by more ordinary people: women and men who once sat where you did. Women and men who benefited from no advantage that you do not now possess.
Most importantly, never forget that—when generations of Columbia lawyers rose from these seats, so many years ago; when they left this place, with little more than a law degree in hand—just as you are about to do—they did nothing less than reimagine, and then remake, the world around them.
What will you do to contribute to this legacy? What will you achieve that earlier generations could scarcely imagine?
This, in the end, is what makes America great. Not the words—or the volume—we use to assert our greatness, but the hard things we do and the questioning of ourselves that is uniquely American: the difficult, grinding, unglamorous work that advances the cause of liberty, equality, and justice under law.
Starting today, this is your challenge—and your charge. Your obligation, as Columbia lawyers—and your breathtaking opportunity: not to “Make America Great Again,” as some would have you believe. But to keep making America greater than it has ever been before.
Keep asking tough questions, keep reforming a status quo wherever it is found to be unjust, and keep challenging authority—whether that means occupying an office, or running for one.
Keep bending that arc, and keep shaping our story, in defiance of those who would roll back decades of progress—ever mindful of new challenges, and always sensitive to the echoes of our darkest past that still resonate, and impact us, today.
And keep pulling this great country closer to our founding principles, and nearer to the brighter, more inclusive future we have always sought. A future full of promise—and progress—in which all things are possible. A future faithful to our history—as a nation born of revolution and tempered by two centuries of righteous struggle—whose best days are still to come.
My generation has far more yesterdays than tomorrows. This struggle is now yours to carry forward. Our future now rests squarely in your hands. And I cannot wait to see how you will shape it—and where you will lead our noble profession and our great country—from this moment on.
Congratulations, Class of 2016. I wish you only the best in your great endeavor.