Thomas tells grads of goal blocked by injustice
Thousands attended the University of Georgia's 2008 Spring Commencement at Sanford Stadium on Saturday.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the fifth Georgian to serve on the high court, would have been the first black University of Georgia graduate if he'd had his way.
Thomas wanted to be a Bulldog, but segregation stopped him, he said Saturday during his commencement address at Sanford Stadium.
"Forty-one years ago, when I graduated from high school in Savannah, attending the University of Georgia was not an option," he said. "Thankfully, much has changed in my lifetime. Knowing what I know today, I would go to school here in a heartbeat. Georgia is home, and Georgia is where I belong."
Thomas graduated from the College of the Holy Cross and Yale Law School.
He credited his grandparents, relatives and friends - farmers, yard workers and maids, mostly - in his native Pin Point for raising him right.
"They went along with their lives doing their best with what they had, knowing all the while that this was not necessarily fair," he said. "They played the hand they were dealt, and through it all, they were unfailingly good, decent and kind people, whose unrequited love for our great country and hope for our future were shining examples for all of us to emulate in our own struggles."
The controversial justice spurned politics, jurisprudence and the usual lofty rhetoric of commencement speakers. Instead, he praised old-fashioned virtues like faith, gratitude, honesty, discipline, politeness, punctuality and sincerity.
"Look, many have been angry at me because I refuse to be angry, bitter or full of grievances, and some will be angry at you for not becoming agents of their most recent cynical causes," he said. "Don't worry about it. No monuments are ever built to cynics."
Thomas recalled when the socialist writer Michael Harrington spoke at his own commencement in 1971. But Thomas said he was more worried at the time about paying off his student loans and his upcoming wedding than about Harrington's message.
"He seemed to be exhorting us on to solve the problems of poverty and injustice," Thomas said. "As important as that was, I, like most people sitting here today, was focused on solving my own problems, so I would not become a problem for or a burden to others."
Some faculty and students criticized UGA President Michael Adams' selection of Thomas to deliver the commencement address. About 1,200 people signed an online petition opposing the choice. Thomas was accused of sexual harassment during his 1991 Senate confirmation hearings, and a rash of harassment scandals has plagued UGA lately.
But he received a standing ovation Saturday, and graduates said his speech's humor and homespun wisdom resonated with them.
"A lot of the things he said are the same things my mother and auntie say all the time," psychology and pre-med major LaKeithia Glover said.
Valedictorian Deep Shah, one of UGA's two Rhodes Scholars, reminded his classmates that education is a privilege not everyone is afforded, and poverty and inequality exist in America and around the world.
"The promising truth, though, is that we can change the fate of those less fortunate than us, if we work together," said Shah, a biology and international affairs major who will attend Harvard Medical School after a year at the University of Oxford.
Michael Bunch, senior vice president of the testing firm Measurements Inc., spoke to graduate students Saturday afternoon at Stegeman Coliseum.
About 3,500 undergraduates, 925 masters and specialist candidates and 174 doctoral candidates received degrees Saturday.
Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on 051108