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Remarks by Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman

Howard University
Law School Commencement
May 13, 2000

Thank you, Deborah (Obiomoba), for that fine introduction, and my congratulations to you for your leadership as vice-president of the first graduating class of the Howard University School of Law in this new century.

I also extend my congratulations to President Swygert, Dean Alice Gresham Bullock, to Malcolm Cunningham, the president of your national alumni association, to all the law school faculty and administrators, and most of all to the 145 members of this class and their families.

It has been said that your graduation is one of five major milestones in life - the others of course are birth, marriage, death, and the day you pay off your student loans. I thank you for inviting me to share in this most important milestone with you.

Once I stood where you stand today, the proud graduate of a historically black college, Xavier University of New Orleans.

I remember my enthusiasm. I remember my excitement. What I don't remember is the name of the commencement speaker.

But I do remember some advice my good friend the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown once gave me. He said, "Commencement speeches should have a good introduction and a good conclusion...and the two should be as close together as possible."

So I know my place. I know that any wisdom I impart must pale in comparison with the encouragement, support and love you have received from your professors, your family, and your friends.

Could we give them all -parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, professors and administrators - a round of applause, because this is their day too.

It is a particular honor to be here today because this year marks the 35th anniversary of the historic address that President Lyndon Baines Johnson delivered to Howard graduates in 1965.

Thirty five years ago - I know that is an eternity to some of you. But to other generations, to your parents and grandparents, it takes only the blink of an eye, and we are back in an unforgettable decade that combined pain with progress, turmoil with triumph.

Across my native south, there were sheriffs, mayors, governors, defying the courts; police dog attacking peaceful demonstrators; fire hoses toppling children; protestors led away in handcuffs, and too little refuge in the hallowed sanctuary of the law.

From the days when I saw my mother thrown off a bus literally onto the streets because she took a different seat -- to my father being kicked out of the most hallowed place in our democracy -- the voting booth, much has changed. More than anything else, what has changed is our faith in the Constitution and the power of the law. After all, the law is not about the words on a page, or books on a shelf, the law is about lifting lives, opening doors, helping our country live up to its promise, and our citizens live up to their potential.

Just as your predecessors, with the Constitution as their shield, stared down the sheriffs of segregation, you must step forward to dismantle out time's most stubborn obstacles to equal justice - poverty, unemployment and, yes, continuing discrimination.

Thurgood Marshall and other graduates of this law school took the risks, used their Howard Law School degree and changed America for the better. In many ways, I consider myself a beneficiary of those who trained here at Howard Law School. Yours is a special legacy. Today, I proudly sit in the Cabinet of the President of the United States, the first African American in the history of the Labor Department.

But I recognize that I sit there today thanks to the work of Justice Thurgood Marshall, Howard Trustee Vernon Jordan who sat at the helm of the Urban League, and so many others who came before.

Thanks to their work, Americans of all backgrounds and cultures are living and learning, working and serving together. The doors of opportunity are open wider than ever. We are living in a time of unprecedented prosperity, with the longest peacetime expansion in our history and the lowest African American and Hispanic unemployment ever recorded since we began to keep separate data in the early 1970s. Our social fabric is mending, with declining rates of welfare, crime, teen pregnancy and drug abuse.

But you and I know that our work is not done. The very fact of today's economic boom imposes a new demand on our democracy: that our prosperity must not be limited to a fortunate few, but must be broadly shared.

Our work today is perhaps more complex than it was 35 years ago. For then, there was the clear enemy of legal segregation and overt hatred. Today, the progress we make in building an inclusive American, as President Clinton has said, depends more on whether we can expand opportunity and deal with a whole range of social challenges. In 1963, one challenge was to open our schools to all our children. In 2000, our challenge is to make sure all those children get a world-class education.

Because today's economy, far more than that of the 1960s, demands specialized often high-tech skills. For those who have them, the sky is the limit. For those who lack them, our booming economy is unforgiving.

I know you are well prepared to meet the challenges of this new economy because you have received a world-class education and earned a law degree from this great institution. With an unemployment rate of 7.2% for African Americans in general, but 2.3% for African Americans who have a college degree, your success in the workplace today is virtually assured.

But it is also important that you recognize the need to keep building on the skills and knowledge you have already received. Because the impact of globalization and technology on our economy is changing the workplace and the workforce at warp speed. There are jobs created today that we had never heard of just 10 years ago because of the Internet. As a matter of fact, just 10 years ago who had heard of the Internet?

If you had asked me, I would have thought it was related to the game of tennis. And increasingly, because of technology, cell phones, e-mails, faxes and pagers, we are working in an environment where the virtual office door never closes. But there is one thing that will not change in the near future in our new e-society, and that is the need for Howard law graduates to help build that new e-society in the Howard tradition. An e-society of economic justice, and expanded opportunities. Thirty-five years ago, LBJ told the Howard graduations, "we seek not just freedom but opportunity" --- and that is still true today.

I want you to go out to do well and make money but I also want you to go out and do good. You enter an economy that wants and needs your talents. Yet I urge you, as your pursue your legal careers, not to ignore the problems that afflict our society. Rather, use your legal skills to meet the challenges of the 21st century just as earlier generations used their skills - and their blood, sweat, and tears - to confront those of the 20th.

You must remain vigilant, securing equal rights for employment, education, housing, voting and citizenship for all Americans. You can help inner-city entrepreneurs negotiate loans to start new businesses. You can help neighborhood health clinics navigate the regulatory mazes they have just to stay open. You can help nonprofits and merchants in under-served communities. You can help the boom on Wall Street, help those on Main Street.

You are the first graduates of a great law school in a new century. You can be positive role models for a whole new generation who will seek the law as a career. I suspect that many of you were inspired to go to law school because you thought lawyers were standing up for what was right, not simply because they were making a good living or a headline.

Some of you have gone from undergrad to Howard law school and now you enter the world of work. Some of you are already veterans of the work force and returned to receive your law degree. And I would dare say that with 70 percent of this class being women, you are in particular, the vanguard of a growing wave of African American women lawyers in the 21st century, All of you can make a real difference.

Draw strength and take comfort in your family, your friends, and your faith. Remember that it is your family that grounds you, it will be your friends who bolster you, and your faith that guides you. There is no deeper well to draw from.

Dr. Martin Luther King once said that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Howard's lawyers have, for many, many years, bent the arc toward justice, and as a result, our nation has been transformed for the better. So I ask you to continue to lead us along that arc - to make the promise of America, the practice of America.

Thank you and God speed.

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