Fatima Goss Graves Gives the 2024 Howard School of Law Hooding Ceremony Commencement Address

Good afternoon, HUSL! It’s an honor to be here today! Jasmine, thank you for that introduction. To Dean Crooms-Robinson, incoming Dean Fairfax, faculty, and staff: thank you for welcoming me here and for mentoring, educating, and empowering today’s graduates and so many before.  To all the families, friends, and loved ones: thank you for the love you have poured into these leaders. You are the well they returned to again and again. As an integral part of their support system, you are an integral part of this community. Let’s hear it for everyone whose support and encouragement got you to this day. And since tomorrow is Mother’s Day, can we get a little extra loud for the moms in the audience? 

And now, to the Howard University School of Law Class of 2024: Congratulations! Thank you for bringing us together to celebrate excellence. To celebrate Black excellence. You have worked a long time to get here. You have worked hard to get here. And you have worked together to get here. On this day, as we celebrate your individual achievements, I ask that you also remember the importance of your community. 

Think of the late-night study sessions you survived thanks to the rocks in your section. The long hours of prep that left you permanently bonded to your moot court partner. The difference you made, the lives you changed—together—with your fellow students in clinic. Hold onto that. Hold onto one another. Trust me when I say that wherever you are headed next, you will need each other. And believe me when I say: we (pause) need (pause) you. 

The Moment We’re In: Dreaming Forward, Looking Back

This is a group that knows better than most what it means to describe our current moment as “unprecedented.” Wherever you thought you were headed in the law and in this life, we’re all feeling the ground shift beneath us with each decision that rewrites the rules we thought we knew; with each cultural campaign that casually places extreme ideas at the center of debate. 

I know the feeling. I graduated from law school in 2001, just months after the Supreme Court ruled on the fate of the 2000 presidential election in Bush v. Gore. For many of us, it was a decision that challenged what we had believed to be true about the rule of law and the role of the Court. [I guess, those may seem like simpler times.] The world I was entering then pales in comparison to the legal landscape you’re facing today. I won’t lie to you, H-U. You know we’re going through it right now. 

If you came to the law as I did—looking for a tool to create powerful change, a vehicle to achieve justice —I can imagine it is deeply unsettling to see the law wielded toward harm instead. I can imagine the uncertainty that comes from seeing constitutional rights disappear, the sorrow that comes from witnessing unrelenting injustice at home and abroad. I know many of you are wondering - where we go from here. What future is possible. How we dream forward. 

The answer for me has always been first to look back. I am the first lawyer in my family, but I came to understand the law as a means of social progress through the story of my family.  

In the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, as school districts sought to craft policies to resist integration, both of my parents’ families were plaintiffs in separate school desegregation cases against Detroit and Knoxville school systems. For my family, the act of joining with community leaders, parents and students, with the NAACP and the Legal Defense Fund to use the law to counter efforts to re-entrench racial isolation was a source of pride. In fact, I never even knew the full outcomes of those cases until I had a chance to go to law school and read the decisions. What I understood was the pride in helping to shape the destiny of generations of students. The pride in joining together and demanding justice for our family and for all Black families.  

My family stories remind me that our nation’s story has been written by those who dared to hold America to its promise. Now, in a moment when states across our country are rolling back freedoms… It is all of our jobs to press ahead…     Knowing that while the moment we’re in is unprecedented, those who came before us overcame before us. And they can show the way forward. 

When Charlotte E. Ray graduated from this hallowed institution in 1872, the ink on the Emancipation Proclamation was barely dry. In the middle of Reconstruction, she constructed something our country had never seen before: a career as a Black woman lawyer. She faced discrimination, to be sure. But she didn’t back down. And she blazed a trail for all of us here. 

Pauli Murray graduated from Howard Law in 1944, at the height of Jim Crow and the rise of the Lavender Scare. That you can find her ideas taking root in the work of Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s foundational jurisprudence is a reminder to aim higher than your real time victories. In fact, as Pauli put it: In not a single one of these little campaigns was I victorious…but I have lived to see the thesis upon which I was operating vindicated…I’ve lived to see my lost causes found.  

Charlotte Ray and Pauli Murray entered the practice of law at times when the paths ahead were deeply uncertain…the challenges seemed unprecedented, impossible. I draw strength from the audacity of our ancestors, who made the tools of their oppression into the means of their own liberation. I take heart in their determination in the face of discrimination and discouraging odds. And I find hope in their vision for a better future.       

As HUSL graduates, their legacy is your inheritance. Look back on it often, and you’ll find everything you need to dream forward. 

Advice to the Graduates: Defend, Disrupt, Dream

And as you look ahead, I urge you also to look within yourselves. Find what it is you are called to do. Because as I said earlier, we need every single one of you. But that doesn’t mean we need each one of you to do everything. Let me instead suggest three things that you HUSL graduates might do as you head out into the world. 

The first is defend. We have fought so hard for what we have. Pressed forward with an undeniable movement demanding progress. But in this moment, when so much feels precarious, when our hard-won rights are being stripped away, we know that the most vulnerable among us will be the first to pay the price. And some of you will feel called to protect them. You know who you are. 

Your hearts can hold their pain. Your cool in a crisis can bring calm. Your skilled advocacy can help find safety. And your unbreakable spirit can fortify you as you go back to the front lines again and again. Defenders: we need you. Follow that call in your heart. 

Others of you might feel called to disrupt. I don’t mean that in a Silicon Valley sense. I’m not suggesting you get into tech; I’m suggesting, in the words of the late, great John Lewis, that you “get in good trouble.” Because right now, those who would drag us backward think they have some momentum. They think that knocking down one precedent means they should swing for the next three…        

That after overturning Roe v. Wade, they can take down Griswold and Obergefell… That after outlawing two affirmative action programs at two universities, they can attack diversity in every institution, everywhere. They think that trying to discredit one election means they can come for our democracy. Not on your watch. You have a fighter’s heart and a mind sharp enough to slice through every false justification. You can marshal the arguments to beat them at their own game. You welcome the challenge because you know you can win. Disruptors: we need you. 

Now, let me acknowledge that the work of defending and disrupting is hard. It is necessary, but it is not for everyone—and that’s ok. Because some of you are called to dream. 

 Think of it this way: if a house is on fire, you need someone to go in and rescue the people. You need others to organize a bucket brigade and fight the flames. But also, crucially, you need someone to round the corner and plant a garden. Someone who will look ahead and understand that between the fighting and the saving, everyone is going to need food to eat. They’ll need beauty to give them hope. And when it’s time to rebuild, we’ll all be glad that they had the vision to plant trees. 

Dreamers: your job starts now. Because we will see progress again. The legal landscape will change. Power will shift. And we’ll have the opportunity to build something better—but we can’t wait to begin that dreamy work. 

And let me also say, this applies no matter your path. I  want to be clear that I am talking to all of you – to those headed to social justice organizations and roles in government. Those finding their way to law firms or corporate practice.  Whether you’re driving change inside your own organizations, donating your time, or directing resources toward an important cause, you too are called to be a part of the solution. 

Defenders, disrupters, dreamers – we need you all. 

As you head out into the world, be clear-eyed about your purpose. As you move through clerkships and fellowships and first jobs, pay attention to what it is you feel called to do. Don’t be discouraged by the enormity of the task; find your piece and go to it. Howard Law, you were made for this moment. 

You have the heart. You have the hustle, HUSL. You have a mighty heritage propelling you forward and giving you hope. You have each other, and today, you have a J.D. from Howard Law. 

Congratulations again, and thank you. 

Watch the full Hooding Ceremony here.