Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey Invokes Thurgood Marshall, Pauli Murray, Ibram Kendi in Addressing LAW Convocation
As professional advocates, law grads can work to unravel policies underlying structural inequities highlighted by the pandemic
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is known as a crusader for civil rights and social justice, and on Saturday, May 15, she called the BU School of Law Class of 2021 to action, telling the graduates that they are the ones who can help build the world anew in the wake of “a global pandemic [that has] exposed the cracks of our fractured society.”
That call to action rang out in speeches throughout the University’s Commencement weekend, including in Sunday’s keynote Commencement address to undergraduates by US Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) (Hon.’21). “You are today’s Freedom Riders,” Pressley told them, a message Healey carried as well a day earlier.
“The disparities we see today are the results of countless choices made by people before us and perpetuated by many,” the attorney general said in her LAW convocation address, which was filmed in advance for the virtual ceremony. “And you, as a lawyer, will be uniquely equipped to unravel those decisions, and make better ones going forward.”
Reminding the graduates that they have sworn an oath to uphold and protect the US Constitution, with its guarantee of civil rights and liberties, she invoked the legacy of former US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who, she said, “after being rejected from his first-choice law school because he was Black, attended Howard University School of Law and successfully argued before the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools violated the guarantee of equal protection.”
Healey spoke, too, of Episcopal priest and legal scholar Pauli Murray, “who coined the term ‘Jane Crow’ in reference to the unique discrimination faced by Black women.” Healey became the first openly gay attorney general in the nation when she was first elected, in 2015, and she reminded the Class of 2021 how Murray had “grappled with complex legal questions in pursuit of the liberation of women, Black people, and the LGBTQ community.”
“Look, I know not everyone is going to become civil rights lawyers,” Healey said. “I myself began my career as a business litigator at a big firm and had a great experience. But whatever career path we choose, wherever our career takes us, we have a responsibility to use our legal skills and education to uphold the promises of our Constitution.”
Introducing the second term attorney general, LAW Dean Angela Onwuachi-Willig spoke of Healey’s efforts to tackle the state’s opioid epidemic, reduce gun violence, enforce civil rights, protect consumers, and address climate change. Onwuachi-Willig, Ryan Roth Gallo and Ernest J. Gallo Professor of Law, also cited her focus on combating the crime of human trafficking, noting that students and faculty from the BU LAW Immigrants’ Rights & Human Trafficking Program have been able to partner with Healey’s office in that work.
As attorney general, Onwauchi-Willig said, Healey has advocated for a more equal and inclusive workplace, as well as for marriage equality and the legal protection of transgender people from discrimination. She added that Healey, as the former head of the commonwealth’s Attorney General’s Civil Rights Division, was the architect of Massachusetts’ successful challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act and argued the case in federal court. Onwuachi-Willig also noted Healey’s athletic achievements: as an undergraduate at Harvard, she was cocaptain of the women’s basketball team. She spent two years playing professional basketball in Europe after college, and in 2006 she was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame.
The Class of 2021 comprises 276 JD students, 108 LLM students, and the first two graduates from the Master in the Study of Tax Law (MSL-Tax), LAW’s first degree program for nonlawyers.
In her address, Healey called out some of the Class of 2021’s “remarkable highlights: members of the Immigrants’ Rights & Human Trafficking Clinic secured the release of two immigrant women who were abused by their doctor and detained by ICE in Georgia. The BU/MIT Technology Law Clinic helped researchers disclose vulnerabilities in a smartphone voting app. One student formed a nonprofit in the middle of the pandemic to create space-saving desks for students in need.
“The Black Law Students Association celebrated its 50th anniversary and was recognized as Chapter of the Year,” she said. “BU Law’s first Women of Color Collaborative was founded [by one of the convocation’s two student speakers, Temi Omilabu (LAW’21)] and it is thriving. The Public Interest Project made impactful changes to prioritize antiracism in its grant application process. The list goes on.”
Healey recalled what she saw in the wake of one of former President Trump’s first orders, the so-called Muslim ban—the anguish of the families who were stranded at Logan Airport and separated from their loved ones by the order, which halted travel from many Muslim-majority countries. “But you know what I also saw that day—attorneys, from big firms and small shops, public and private practice—racing to the airport to see how they could help,” she said. “In the days and weeks that followed, we all worked together, immigration attorneys, government lawyers, in-house counsel for our universities, hospitals, businesses, to challenge the ban in court—and win.”
A similar army of lawyers assembled to defend voters’ rights in the 2021 presidential election, Healey said. “Lawyers traveled to Detroit, Philadelphia, and Atlanta to serve as election observers, staff recounts, and handle challenges. Working together, we defended attacks on our democracy, made sure every vote was counted, and won in court every single time.”
She also invoked a name, and a resource, on the BU campus. “You are the graduates of Boston University, home now to Ibram Kendi and the Center for Antiracist Research,” she said. “Dr. Kendi gave us a road map for this work—to show up over and over to fight against racist policies, ideas, and actions.” Kendi, an antiracism scholar and BU’s Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, came to BU in 2020 as the founding director of the Center for Antiracist Research.
Healey warned the graduates that the road ahead will not be easy, that it never is for people working for structural change. “Doing the right thing often feels thankless. And the status quo doesn’t usually reward people who break it. But if you build coalitions and create solidarity, you might just change things for the better.”