Medgar Evers College celebrated its 46th Annual Commencement Ceremony at Barclays Center on Thursday, June 8 with Hillary Clinton serving as the day’s keynote speaker and recipient of an Honorary Degree of Humane Letters.
“I am deeply honored and delighted to be part of this ceremony,” Clinton, who held a town hall meeting at the school during the 2016 Democratic primary, told the crowd. “When I was here last year, someone asked if I would come back and speak at commencement and I said yes. Now, I wish I had flown in from the White House but I’m just as happy to be here anyway.”
Other speakers included Borough President Eric Adams, members of the board of trustees for the City University of New York (CUNY), students, Dr. Rudolph F. Crew, president of the school, and Reena and Daniel Evers-Everette, the daughter and grandson of Medgar and Myrlie Evers.
Clinton congratulated the class and discussed the school’s diversity. “You’re an inspiring group. You come from 94 countries, speak 44 languages, and you embody what makes America and New York great already,” she said. “Your ambition, innovation and diversity is who we are and who we should want to be. In this graduating class of more than 1,000 students, there are more than 1,000 stories. The oldest graduate is 75 years old. The youngest is 17.”
She also told stories of several students who persevered to receive their degree, such as a man who immigrated from Yemen. “He first came to this country and worked at a deli across the street from Medgar Evers,” Clinton explained. “He made sandwiches for students and professors. And today, he’s graduating with honors. I’m certainly grateful he wasn’t banned from America.”
The current political climate was also touched on by Clinton. “The first months of this year saw a surge in hate crimes across this country,” said the former secretary of state and U.S. Senator. “White supremacists are emboldened and their numbers are on the rise.”
Clinton cited the Portland train stabbing that occurred in May as an example. “A white supremacist boarded a train and unleashed a racist, xenophobic trade against two teenage girls,” Clinton said. “Their fellow passengers didn’t hesitate and they stood in front of those girls to block the abuse and the hate-filled man stabbed two of the rescuers and protectors to death and another who narrowly escaped with his life. One victim’s last words as he was carried away by paramedics were, ‘Tell everyone on this train I love them.'”
While not mentioning him by name, Clinton discussed President Donald Trump’s policies. “All of us must recommit ourselves to the urgent work of protecting the safety and civil rights of all of our people, not moving in the opposite direction and undoing the progress that we have made thanks to the sacrifice and work by people like Medgar and Myrlie Evers. But, instead we see official actions that turn us against one another and turn us back,” she said. “The Muslim ban is a particularly egregious example, and it is a ban, as the president made very clear this week. Attacks on civil rights don’t have to dramatic to be dangerous.”
Clinton made the audience laugh when mentioning her defeat. “I’ve had a few setbacks in my own life, and losing an election is pretty devastating considering who I lost to,” she said.
Before her speech, Crew discussed optimism. “We gather here because this is somewhat ritualistic and you’ve earned it and worked hard for it,” he said. “There are opportunities that await you, but none more important than the lessons that you learn en route to that. One of those lessons is that you must always be hopeful.”
Valedictorian Jonathan Arcentales addressed his personal struggles and how the college helped change his perspective. “I know many of us struggled with the right mindset to get where we are now but we weren’t alone. The professors at Medgar Evers College made sure we were in good hands,” he said. “They gave us the resources we needed to excel in every one of their classes and reassure us we will be all right. Their positive attitudes left an imprint on me and every other graduating student here today.”
The legacy of Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist from Mississippi, was also a focal point of the ceremony. “Medgar Evers was murdered in 1963 by a white supremacist and a Klansman,” Clinton said. “He worked to end segregation at the University of Mississippi, to guarantee voting rights. His legacy lives on in every one of you graduates. The motto of this institution – courage, strength and fortitude – represents Medgar and Myrlie Evers and I hope it is in your hearts.”
“You had faith in yourself to get to this point but it wasn’t easy. Life isn’t easy but growing up, I had two fantastic role models and they were my heroes,” said the Evers’ daughter Reena, who introduced Clinton. “I always looked up to my parents. I took pride in knowing they’re giants in the sense of a vision for equality and justice for all of us.”
Towards the end of her speech, Clinton urged the graduates to remain strong under inevitable adversity. “When you go out into this world awaiting you, you know there will be some people undermining you because of who you are, what you believe,” she said. “They’ll say you’re less valuable. Maybe it’s the color of your skin, your background, your religion, who you love and worship. Don’t you believe them for a second. Speak out and make your voices heard every single day.”