Southern Poverty Law Center Founder and Chief Counsel Morris Dees, who received an honorary degree, spoke to the 49 graduates of the UMass School of Law of their duty and opportunity to defend individuals’ rights.
Recalling John Adams’ defense of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, Dees said, "He made sure the rule of law, not the rule of the mob, would be used in our country."
Relating the story of his representation of Vietnamese fishermen in Texas, whose boats were burned by the Klu Klux Klan shortly after the Vietnam War, Dees implored the graduates to use their talents to advance the unpopular causes of justice. At the blessing of the fleet after the case was won, “I could see the enormous amount of pride as these new Americans, these immigrants, who found their place at America’s table, like millions of immigrants who came before to help build this into a greater nation,” he said. “As you go out to engage in the practice of law...there are injustices today. Dr. King, quoting (biblical prophet) Amos, said, ‘Let's not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."
The Commencement was held at UMass Dartmouth’s Main Auditorium. The School of Law is one of eight colleges and schools of UMass Dartmouth.
The 49 members of the UMass Law Class of 2017 completed more than 7,000 hours of pro bono and other law-related service to the community. They volunteered in 37 different offices, including private law firms, government agencies and non-profit organizations.
UMass President Meehan, speaking of the impact that lawyers have played on the advancement of civil rights in America, said, "If you look at the great periods of change in this country…more often than not it was the lawyer – skilled, trained, passionate, committed to doing the right thing…You have an awesome responsibility.”
Interim Chancellor Peyton R. Helm, who has led the university for the past year and a half presided over the ceremony. Dr. Helm told the graduates, “We live in perilous times, times where justice may seem, at times, under siege. Yet, I’m an optimist because I have gotten to know some of you and some of your faculty…I have great confidence in your commitment to make your community, your society, your world better through justice.”
Interim School of Law Dean Eric Mitnick noted that he started working at UMass Law the same year the Class of 2017 entered as students. “I can tell you, my students, that you have inspired me every day of the three years we have been here,” he said. Dean Mitnick, citing the school motto, “Pursue Justice,” also told the graduates that the Juris Doctor degree they earned “is not just a law degree, it is a justice degree.”
UMass Trustee Ed Collins, a longtime organized labor leader, recalled casting one of the votes to establish UMass Law, the only public law school in Massachusetts. “I’m incredibly proud to celebrate with you today,” Trustee Collins said. “We at the university were determined to create the law school because we understood the critical need to have lawyers like you, lawyers dedicated to advancing the cause of justice, working for the public good.”
Student Speaker Shelya Lors described her personal transformation and that of her classmates since arriving at UMass Law. “We are different,” she said. “We are now the detours that will disrupt and dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. We are now the drafters whose ink will blot out the damaging effects of pollution on our environment. We are the advocates who will stand in the gap and fight for our neighbors who cannot afford the health care they desperately need in order to stand…We are the ones who will turn this world right side up.”
The School of Law Commencement followed undergraduate and graduate ceremonies held this weekend at the Xfinity Center in Mansfield. Those ceremonies attracted an estimate 12,000 people.