Graduates of the 2020 class of Northwestern University, I commend you on completion of a course of study at a competitive world-class university. To receive a degree from this school is a high honor. I am humbled by the invitation to provide reflections on the past and recommendations for the present. There is a tradition at Northwestern that a representative of the 50th year reunion class participate in the commencement ceremony, but due to COVID-19 pandemic safe and responsible social distancing policies, I’ve been asked to share my thoughts with you this way.
Individual success and social responsibility can and should go together. It was our vision and mission to achieve this goal when we conducted a sit-in that caused a radical break with Northwestern’s previous history and the start of meaningful growth. I was one of more than 100 Black students who occupied the Bursar’s Office for 38 hours on May 3 and 4, 1968 after the University failed to meet a list of student demands. The demands called for NU to racially desegregate its real estate holdings, admit more Black students, and add a program of Black literature, history and art to the curriculum. The University’s first-ever sit-in led to an agreement that resulted in a better existence for Blacks on campus and a better Northwestern.
We graduated in June 1970. We were all so glad for that long-anticipated event to arrive. Once it was over, we quickly scattered in our various directions without thought to the fact that we were seeing some of our classmates for the last time.
These are lessons firmly entrenched after 50 years:
- Old friendships are pure gold.
- People are precious.
- Life is short.
- There is a lot to be said for stability.
- To your class, you will always look like you did a half century ago.
- By now, you are beyond showing off; you no longer have anything to prove.
- The peer pressure is gone; be yourself.
- My class members are special people and were then too.
Northwestern has prepared you to pursue truth, to give compassionate service, and to participate in the creation of a more just and humane world. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated a month before we took over the Bursar’s Office, he died April 4, 1968. Dr. King was a prophet who shed light on the enduring and urgent tensions between White and Black America over race and class. He was a prophet who led the nation out of the darkness of Jim Crow. His Promised Land was one he conjured on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, a place where his “four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” However, he knew our country was embarking on a long, twilight struggle against poverty, race and violence. “We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” he preached the night before he died.
His impact legacy and mission remain alive today and will far surpass the span of any lifetime. In fact, I am certain that he intended his work to live beyond him and knew his great civil and human rights projects would require more than one generation to be realized. In this respect, they live on within all of those willing to continue working where he left off.
Today is the end of your training at NU. But it is also the beginning of your professional journey. I am compelled to say you become a part of a world that is seriously disturbed. Never in history has there been more need for wise, courageous and enlightened leadership than at the present. We look for that leadership to you. The picture out there is not too rosy. Our world increasingly, is a place of sickness, poverty, violent conflict, hatred, and brutal atrocities negatively affecting so many of our brothers and sisters, and it demands that we eradicate every form of polarization, which would divide us. Our efforts must be at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and promoting the well-being of all people. The complexity, the gravity, and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents to support one another with respect for our differences. I suggest we agree upon one thing: that a crucial measure of our success in life is the way we treat one another in our lives. When we lessen the burdens of living for those around us, we are doing well; when we add to the misery of the world, we are not.
Dr. King said you can be one of two things: You can be a thermometer or a thermostat. A thermometer measures the temperature as it is. A thermostat regulates the temperature. You can be either the thermometer, accepting societal problems as they are, or you can be the thermostat, re-examining and making alterations that improve our lives and our future.
When you celebrate your 50th reunion and look back on this moment in history it is my fervent hope that you will be filled with joy remembering the revival, hope and peace that came out of this season to draw our hurting world back together.
May you find an interesting and satisfying life’s work? The baton is passed to you.
Stanley L. Hill
Associate Judge, Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois
Bachelor of Science, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University, 1970