More than 240 graduates received their degrees during the school of law commencement ceremony in Matthews Arena on Friday, May 23, 2014. Randall Kennedy, a leading scholar on race issues and the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, delivered the commencement address. 

The following is a transcript of Randall L. Kennedy's commencement address. View the video here.

Graduating class of 2014 I am deeply honored to be with you on this all-important occasion.

Parents, relatives, guardians, and friends have invested deeply in making it possible for you to receive your degrees. Behind your accomplishment are many prayers, lectures, gifts, loans, forgone vacations, and insistent nudges -- acts of generosity that will hopefully never be forgotten.

Essential as well have been the teachers and administrators who have done all in their power to equip you with the skills you will need to navigate a fast-changing professional environment. They, too, are entitled to gratitude.

I clearly recall my law school years. I went to law school for the wrong reason. More precisely, I went with an absence of definite purpose. I went because my older brother had and doing the same seemed to be a safe, respectable default position. That first year was a long snooze. I made it through my coursework but without enthusiasm. And then something wonderful happened. The summer after my first year of law school, I snagged a position at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. My work there made the law come alive for me. That enlivened interest stemmed from two developments.

One was hands-on, real-life experience with legal practice -- the sort of experience you have hopefully encountered in the Cooperative Legal Education Program that has long been a distinguishing feature of Northeastern. When I studied issue preclusion in the abstract in my course on civil procedure, the subject was a bore. But when I confronted the subject in the context of a real case, with a real client, the topic suddenly became gripping.

The other development was working day in and day out with people with a mission, people who cared deeply about a cause beyond themselves, people who sought to make the world a bit better through their labors.

I am especially in mind of those people now because we meet in a season of remembrance that should resonate with any legal community but especially this one given the centrality of public-spiritedness to the ethos of the Northeastern University School of Law. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer, the fiftieth anniversary of the ultimate sacrifice made by James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman — in sum, the fiftieth anniversary of the high tide of the Civil Rights Revolution.

Lawyers played a major role in that magnificent effort. They labored to protect dissidents and their organizations. They insisted that all persons regardless of race and regardless of guilt be accorded due process and equality of respect. They helped craft the legislative monuments of that era, laws that people around the country invoke daily. They propounded arguments used to support the constitutionality of those new statutes and to interpret them broadly. Some of those lawyers eventually attained high office and became famous. I think here of Thurgood Marshall, “Mr. Civil Rights,”who ascended to the Supreme Court. Many others never attained high office, never made much money, never garnered fame. They did, however, leave behind a legacy of brave, creative, excellent work that moved our law closer to justice.

Two who plunged themselves fully into the Civil Rights Revolution are members of this community. They are attorneys, educators, and activists I admire and from whom I draw inspiration. I am referring to Professors Michael Meltsner and Margaret Burnham.

In the 1960s, as a member of the staff of the Legal Defense Fund, Michael participated in a wide range of important civil rights cases. He grappled with knotty controversies that involved whether federal constitutional standards governed putatively “private’ hospitals, allegations of racial exclusion in the selection of juries, claims of unfairness in eye-witness identifications, and charges of racial bias in the administration of capital punishment. Occasionally his cases were highly publicized. One of his clients, for example, was a man named Muhammed Ali Most of the time, though, he plugged away quietly in little-recognized disputes, handling expertly the chores which constitute litigation.

In the 1970s, Michael turned to legal academia, joining the faculty at the Columbia Law School. In 1979 he joined the Northeastern University Law School community where he has taught constitutional law, criminal law, the law of capital punishment and a host of other subjects.

In addition to his teaching, Michael has educated through writing. One of the best treatments ever written about any field of Supreme Court jurisprudence is his book Cruel and Unusual: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment. And his memoir The Making of a Civil Rights Lawyer is an incisive exploration of what it meant to be an attorney, and more pointedly a white attorney, in the struggle for black liberation during the Second Reconstruction.

Margaret Burnham has worked for a variety of civil rights and human rights organizations including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the National Conference of Black Lawyers. She participated in school desegregation cases and the landmark lawsuit, Sostre v. McGinnis, that was a pioneering effort to challenge degrading mistreatment of prisoners. Margaret helped to establish several firms — Burnham, Stern & Shapiro and Burnham & Hines — and created as well a solo practice. She became the first African American woman to serve in the Massachusetts judiciary, holding down a seat on the Boston Municipal court bench as an Associate Justice. In 1993, she was appointed by Nelson Mandela to investigate allegations of human rights violations by the African National Congress and the next year she acted as an observer of South Africa's first democratic election.

Margaret joined the Northeastern faculty in 2002. Over the years she has taught courses on the constitutional law of the United States, comparative constitutional law, criminal law, and federal jurisdiction. She founded and directs the Northeastern University Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project — a remarkable enterprise in which she, students, colleagues, and other lawyers investigate overlooked cases of racially-motivated violence. In one of these cases, an episode involving the horrific murder of Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee, the Project played an instrumental part in facilitating a settlement between the heirs of the victims and local officials in Franklin County, Mississippi.

Meltsner and Burnham, though outstanding, are by no means aberrant. They are representative of the forward-looking and reform-minded orientation for which Northeastern Law School is appreciated across the country and around the world. Embedded in their careers are valuable lessons I will mention three.

First, be willing to pursue a variety of callings that can enable you to do good and have fun. Most of you will engage in several undertakings within and outside of legal practice. That may come about voluntarily but it may also come about by dint of forces wholly beyond your control. Whatever the cause of the variety, embrace it. Luxuriate in your ability to play all sorts of roles in all sorts of settings. Michael Meltsner has not only been a lawyer. He is a marriage and family therapist, a novelist, and a playwright. His disturbing drama, In Our name a Play of the Torture Years, was performed at the Boston Playwrights’ Theater. ” Law is wonderful. But there is more to life than legal practice. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Second, be willing to go your own way, even at the cost of conflict with people you like and trust. In 1970, Margaret took a leave of absence from her coveted position at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund because it would not grant her the latitude she sought to participate in the legal defense of her childhood friend, Angela Davis, who had been charged with serious crimes connected with the kidnapping of a judge and a subsequent shoot-out at which several people were killed.

Did Margaret act on a whim? No. She carefully considered the implications of differing with her bosses. But drawing upon her own sense of personal loyalty to a friend and depending upon her own intuition, Margaret made a daring choice. In so doing, she displayed the independence and confidence that have undergirded her remarkable life.

Third, to the fullest possible extent, do what you want to do. Don't complacently settle with respect to something as crucial as how you spend the bulk of your time.

Anyone who is around Meltsner and Burnham, even if but briefly, realize that they like — no love -- what they do. They exude enthusiasm for teaching. They are happy reformers. They are passionate mentors. They are enthusiastic colleagues. They are gripped by an enthralling urgency to do what they deem worthy of doing. I stress this point because, all too often, well-meaning obervers portray people such as Meltsner and Burnham as self-denying martyrs. How mistaken ! Melstner and Burnham are not self-deniers; they do not make themselves miserable in service to noble causes. They joyfully wage struggles for justice knowing that often they will fail.

I conclude by repeating my opening line: I am deeply honored to be with you on this all-important occasion. You have worked hard and learned much. You have gained the respect of your peers and the appreciation of your teachers. I applaud you and await with high expectations your future achievements.

Good luck ! And all the best!