This is what Shirley Wilcher said to the newly minted alumane
Address to the Graduates of Mount Holyoke College, Class of 2018
To the trustees, President Stephens, Leader Pelosi, faculty, fellow honorees and dear graduates: thank you for inviting me back to this wonderful campus. I am humbly and deeply honored to be among such outstanding and accomplished individuals. I can’t believe I am here.
In the fall of 1969, I began my college career at Mount Holyoke, choosing to come here instead of other outstanding women’s colleges because the students and administrators were genuinely welcoming and the campus was beautiful. Being a student here also enabled me to pursue my love of language and philosophy as well as to participate in the Chamber Singers, where we spent the summer of 1972 on a European tour! What an opportunity!
The late 1960s was a time of explosive turmoil after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was a time of student unrest and takeovers. At that time African American students across the nation called for black studies and a house where we could support each other. In the spring of 1970 there was even more unrest against the Vietnam War and colleges and universities nationwide observed a moratorium to reflect on the implications of this war.
At Mount Holyoke my class boasted one of the largest numbers of African American students. We came from Roxbury/Dorchester, Southside Chicago, Washington, DC; Brooklyn, Memphis and Los Angeles. We were bright and capable and intellectually curious and we were good. And as I told Senator Nancy Kassebaum years later, many of us are now physicians and lawyers. In the audience today are three of my “sisters”: Deborah Northcross ’73; Mindy Lewis ’75 (MHC Trustee); and Judge Rhynette Northcross ’71 (MHC Trustee). That is what giving a group of young people, many of whom were unfamiliar with the bucolic landscape and more privileged community in South Hadley an invitation. I knew nothing about demitasse and milk and cookies was not part of my evening routine. I am after all, the daughter of jazz musicians and was raised until the age of 12 by a grandmother whose life choices were limited by being black, female and having only a second-grade education. She had to leave school to take care of her 13 brothers and sisters. But she was brilliant in her own unique way and she supported my love of school – an opportunity she was denied.
It was during my first semester senior year in Paris that I made the decision to pursue a career in civil rights. France has many political parties. We learned literature and philosophy from a French perspective and we were shaken from our complacency about life in the USA. We learned that the American world view was not universally held. We also learned that there was much work to be done at home to make our nation what it could be.
So, while my parents were jazz musicians, I chose to be an activist and follow the footsteps of my Uncle who changed his name to Marcus Garvey Wilcher. Civil rights was my passion, my mission and my career. After attending graduate school and law school, I went to Washington, DC to work for the National Women’s Law Center, which was on the cutting edge of Title IX litigation. In my career in Washington, I have worked in the executive branch, the legislative branch and the fifth estate: the advocacy organizations.
One of the highlights of my career was receiving the key to the city of Birmingham, Alabama, at the Civil Rights Museum when I worked for the Department of Labor. My grandmother migrated to Akron, Ohio from Alabama, and I often think if she was watching when her little girl was receiving the key to the city. I hope she is here now.
You need more than youthful enthusiasm to succeed in this world. You need to understand power, not only political power, i.e., the power of coalitions and the power of the vote, but also the power of relationships, both in the workplace and beyond. Most importantly, you need to understand the power within yourself.
You need to have a vision and the strength to achieve that vision through hard work. You must also have an unshakable faith in yourself.
You need to know that you share with the Creator an ability to create your reality. Where there are obstacles, just say no, as Nancy Reagan once said. Be undeterred. Fight against personal oppression as well as systemic, societal oppression. To a great extent, remember that you control your life and you control your future. Believe that.
We have entered an era where standards of decency have been upended and the rights we fought so hard to establish are being dismantled. We are at a crossroads; we will be either destroyed by the fear of change and of “the other” or we will rise stronger together as a society and a civilization because of our diversity.
I believe that you were born at this time to challenge us to take the latter path. You are shaking the culture of sexism and racism, the tolerance of sexual assault and homophobia, and the hate and bias that is infecting our college campuses and our workplaces. You are standing for a future that rejects tribalism and oppression, religious intolerance and the freedom to simply be your beautiful selves. When I look out at you I am assured that one day we will be a human race.
In addressing a group of students in the Youth March to Integrate the Schools, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. said:
As June approaches, with its graduation ceremonies and speeches, a thought suggests itself. You will hear much about careers, security, and prosperity. I will leave the discussion of such matters to your deans, your principals, and your valedictorians. But I do have a graduation thought to pass along to you. Whatever career you may choose for yourself—doctor, lawyer, teacher—let me propose an avocation to be pursued along with it. Become a dedicated fighter for civil rights. Make it a central part of your life.
It will make you a better doctor, a better lawyer, a better teacher. It will enrich your spirit as nothing else possibly can.... Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater Nation of your country, and a finer world to live in
I believe in you. I salute you. I wish you all the best.
I thank you.