Margaret H. Marshall

Sunday, May 22, 2011 - 08:52

Commencement Greetings

President Pasquerella, members of the Board of Trustees, and especially the class of 2011:

I am deeply honored to be able to consider myself a graduate of Mount Holyoke College, an institution committed to educating women at the highest level of academic excellence and led by a president who is a passionate advocate for women's education and empowerment. Thank you for this gift.

Forty-five years ago, when I graduated from my undergraduate college in Johannesburg, South Africa was in its darkest days of apartheid, that iniquitous racist system of white supremacy. At the time, overthrowing that system seemed impossible. Impossible. The white minority government was all powerful, backed by a large army and security police force, and it used extraordinary means to crush any voice that opposed it. There were laws to silence, to imprison, to torture those who disagreed with the government policy of apartheid. Informers and eavesdroppers, censors and torturers, spies and compliant judges helped smash any opposition to apartheid. What could I, a young white woman, do? What could anyone do, to end apartheid? Every gesture I made seemed so small, so futile, so irrelevant in the face of the juggernaut of apartheid.

Twenty-four years later apartheid did end, and the white racist government was brought to its knees, not by some massive military attack by freedom fighters, but by the countless acts, small and insignificant seeming, of many individuals. Who were they? Women and men, black and white, anonymous mostly, who refused to accept the inevitability of apartheid, who refused to give way to inertia, who refused to be blind in the face of such suffering, who refused to walk away.

My charge to you today is that you never, never succumb to the “danger of futility, the belief that there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills—against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence." Those are the words of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, speaking in 1966 to students in South Africa.

I was with Senator Kennedy when he spoke to us that day. His words are written on my heart as if in stone. May his words sustain you as you "go where no one else will go, [and] do what no one else will do."

(Note: This printed text may vary from the speech delivered.)