Longtime civil rights activist John Seigenthaler receives award

12/20/10 Andrea Lypka
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Civil rights leader and journalist John Seigenthaler Sr. spoke about racial, gender, religious and sexual orientation injustices that groups of people faced in history and continue to face.

“I want to ask you to think with me on times, on times when we suffered defeat, times when we forgot our way, some times when our values escaped us. There is, I think if we are honest, a dark side to our national character that has periodically taken hold in our history and threatened at times to undermine everything our Bill of Rights is about. Our freedoms is about, everything our commitment to justice under law is about. That dark side of our national character is difficult to understand, difficult to define. Difficult to explain and, too often, difficult to admit."

John Seigenthaler Sr. said that in his speech to the graduates at the Stetson University College of Law’s commencement ceremony at Pasadena Community Church on December 18.

“But it is there. How else can we explain the century of the enslavement of the African Americans before Lincoln put his hands to the Emancipation Proclamation? And how can you explain another full century of outrageous denial of human rights, citizen rights, social justice? A century of lynch law justice before Lyndon Johnson put his hand to the Civil Rights enactment of the mid 1960's.”

Stetson University president Wendy Libby presented the honorary doctor of laws degree to Seigenthaler for his achievements.

“As the chief negotiator with the governor of Alabama during the Freedom Rides, and as a member of Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department, you have championed the cause of civil rights throughout your career. As an award winning journalist you have served as founding editorial director of USA Today, long time editor of the Tennessean and founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. In light of your many accomplishments and under the authority vested in me by the board of trustees of Stetson University, I proudly present you with the Honorary Doctor of Laws degree,”

Seigenthaler says he acknowledges the progress but he says more work needs to be done in the civil rights area.

“A month ago the Justice Department released statistics that make my point. 60 percent of those crimes, we call them now 'hate crimes', motivated by racial bias were directed at African Americans. More than 60 percent of those crimes motivated by religious hostility were visited on Jews. 20 percent of the hate crimes were directed toward Muslims. The numbers of attacks that were motivated by hostility for sexual orientation are on the rise. The Southern Poverty Law Center reminds us that in our midst there are now 800 groups who live under the banner of hate."

In his speech, Seigenthaler also talked about the era of McCarthyism when the free speech and other constitutional rights were undermined.

"And then, one day, in that committee room we watched this lawyer, Joseph Welch, confront this Senator, Joe McCarthy, as the senator sought to brand a young member of Welch's law firm as a traitor to his country and suddenly the explosion from Welch came, suddenly the emperor had no clothes. 'Senator,'cried Welch, 'have you know decency, sir? At long last, have you no decency?' If there is any memorable line you will hear as you leave this place today, think on, look into, go online and see and hear that plaintive cry for justice, for decency."

His final words have resonated with the graduates of Stetson University. Some of these graduates will continue to work in the human rights law.

“I ask you to be alert to that dark side of our national nature. I ask you to remember that those of you who pursue the practice of law are, as Joseph Welch was, the sentinels at the gate, in many ways our first guardians of liberty. Half a century ago John Kennedy, speaking to students at Vanderbilt University said these words; "Liberty without learning is in peril, learning without liberty is in vain." As I congratulate you it is with the hope and prayer that you let not your learning be in vain. Congratulations."

Marque Debnam from Youngsville, North Carolina was wearing a black gown and cap that day. He was one of the ninety-one students who graduated with a law degree from Stetson College of Law. He says he plans to continue teaching and to use his law degree to promote racial and gender justice in the society.

“The law degree is more flexible. That way I can do more things. I have a couple of friends back home, we are thinking to starting our own school one day, so the law degree will come in handy in pursuing that goal,” he said.

Marque Debnam is a Stetson Ambassador and a former president of the Black Law Students Association. He is also one of the students wearing a blue cord who has earned the William F. Blews Pro Bono service award for his extracurricular activities. He says he will continue to do community work.

“If you look around, there are a lot of disparities in education, health, housing, in so many different areas. A lot of it is still affected by race and other things also,” he said.

Another student whose volunteerism in human rights was recognized at the ceremony is Abigail Pressler, the president of the Amnesty International at Stetson University.

“Amnesty really gave us an opportunity to use our legal training to actually go out and tell people 'hey this is what the law says, why aren’t you living up to the promise? So we would go out, we would write letters to our senators, letting them know that 'hey, you're citizens are concerned', we did candle light vigils, writing letters overseas, anything we could do to really make change. And as law students we kind of had that extra little edge,” Pressler said.

John Seigenthaler

photo gallery of the commencement

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