May 24, 2011 — New University of Virginia law graduates should continue the legacy of leadership established by predecessors such as 1951 alumnus Robert F. Kennedy, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told the Law School's Class of 2011 during commencement on Sunday.
"You made a critical choice, just as generations of U.Va. law students have before you: to serve the cause of justice, and to dedicate yourselves to the principles that made our nation great and, surely, will guide our future progress," Holder said during his keynote address. "As of today, you are no longer just students of the law. You are now stewards of our justice system."
Holder recognized the public service of FBI Director Robert Mueller, a 1973 graduate, and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, a 1983 graduate – as well as that of U.S. attorneys Tim Heaphy (1991), Neil MacBride (1992) and Zane Memeger (1991) – but paid special tribute to Kennedy, who he said as a law student began to show the qualities that would later make him an effective attorney general and national leader.
Kennedy did not start out as a model student, but as a third-year student found a cause that ignited his passion, Holder said. That year, Kennedy was president of the Student Legal Forum and decided to invite Ralph Bunche to speak at the Law School.
"Dr. Bunche was a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a distinguished diplomat who helped establish the United Nations – and an African-American," Holder said. "At that time, not a single black student had enrolled in the J.D. program, or in U.Va.'s undergraduate college. "
Bunche agreed to speak, but said he would only do so before an integrated audience, Holder said.
"Now, [Kennedy] easily could have avoided controversy, and politely explained to Dr. Bunche that such a thing would be impossible – that it was well beyond his power or control – and that, regrettably, the invitation would have to be withdrawn," Holder said. "He could have bent to custom – and to state law – and moved on to the next distinguished name on his list of potential speakers."
Instead, Kennedy went to the University's Student Council and asked for a resolution allowing an integrated audience for the event, if not a sweeping change in University policy, Holder said. When that failed, he turned to the faculty, some of whom suggested that the Legal Forum "skirt the rules by declaring that a section of the audience would be for African-Americans only, but then allowing people to sit wherever they liked," Holder said.
In the end, Kennedy and some like-minded classmates went to Colgate Darden, the University president at the time, and convinced him that a recent Supreme Court decision integrating a Texas law school required the event to be desegregated, Holder said.
"When, at long last, Dr. Bunche arrived at Cabell Hall, it was filled to capacity. And, for the first time in history, nearly a third of the seats were taken by African-Americans," Holder said. "Sixty years later, I believe that Robert Kennedy would be proud to see this diverse and extremely talented group of graduates."
At the beginning of Sunday's ceremony, Dean Paul G. Mahoney recalled that the orientation session for the Class of 2011 was among his first official duties as dean.
"Of course, in August 2008 we didn't know what would happen over the next few months in the financial markets and over the next few years in the economy in general," he said. "I truly admire those of you who have faced those challenges with maturity and grace. Your future successes – and I know there are many in store – will be all the more deserved for it."
The Class of 2011 collectively put in more than 13,000 hours of pro bono work assisting those who can't afford legal representation, Mahoney said. A record 75 members of the class met the Pro Bono Challenge, the highest number of any graduating class in school history, he said.
"You are trained to be leaders, and you will be: in your careers, in your communities, and in some cases in appointed or elected government service," Mahoney said. "Your law school is proud of you and confident in your future."