At a time when divisions dominate the headlines, the Hon. Roger Gregory, ’78—the first African American to sit on the bench of the Fourth Circuit and the only federal appellate judge to be nominated by two presidents from different political parties—urged members of Michigan Law’s Class of 2022 to listen to the voice of hope.
“I come to you with a spirit of hope, a spirit that’s embedded in what I know you are capable of. And I want to make sure that my message to you is, let nothing distract from your purpose.”
Gregory, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, delivered the address on Friday, May 6, two years after he was initially scheduled to speak at Senior Day. This year’s class of 322 JD students and 37 graduate students was the first since 2019 to gather in person at Hill Auditorium for the event.
They listened as Gregory drew on experiences from his 44-year career as an attorney and judge, including a story of meeting a white woman whom the court had appointed him to represent—and her visible disappointment upon seeing him. “Her world was shaken,” he said. “It didn’t matter that I went to the University of Michigan Law School. It didn’t matter that I was working at a great firm. None of that mattered.”
Instead of letting her reaction deter him, he introduced himself, saying he was proud to represent her. In the end, all worked out well, and his client wrote him a letter of thanks.
“I am convinced that I wouldn’t be where I am now in the court had I stopped where she was,” he said. “If we stop on the borders of not understanding, then we’ll be stuck right there forever. That’s how divisions occur, because people are afraid sometimes just to reach across the border and say, ‘I don’t understand, I don’t know. Can I cross this border?’ You have to be able to reach out as lawyers, as advocates, to say, ‘Yes, you can.’”
Preceding Gregory was student speaker Hilary Allen, ’22, who acknowledged the special challenges the Class of 2022 faced, beginning with the November 2019 death of classmate Daniel Calhoun.
“His death has had a big impact on our community, and he is missed by many people here today. As we were still grappling with that loss, a few months later in March, we were sent home because of COVID-19,” which many thought would be a temporary situation but had a long-term impact.
“Because of the pandemic, the moments after classes in which we would gather and exchange ideas and build community were gone,” Allen said. “Making connections and learning with each other couldn’t happen the way we were used to. I don’t think a lot of us realized how much we needed those interactions until they were gone.”
Allen also recalled that the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 galvanized the Black Law Students Association, to which she belongs, to send demands to the Law School administration to “infuse minority perspectives into the curriculum, make administrative processes more accessible and responsive to the needs of students of color, and reform the Michigan Law community.”
Gregory shared his own experiences growing up in pre-civil rights movement Petersburg, Virginia, to illustrate the need for graduates to find common ground in their work.
“In my hometown, when I was growing up, they had park benches. And when the 1964 Civil Rights Act came along and they could no longer discriminate, someone said, ‘I know, let’s take all of the benches out of the park. So there was no place for anyone to sit. That was the solution to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. So we lost common ground, and all the kids wanted to do was just sit down and play with each other. But look at it now. Somehow, in the alchemy of God’s hand, now I’m on the bench.”
He concluded by encouraging the graduates to always stop and make sure they’ve gone the extra mile.
“There’s one more pleading, there’s one more cause, there’s one more closing argument, there’s one more jail visit, there’s one more holding the hand of weeping parents and weeping people who need to be heard,” he said. “Be the Victors Valiant that you are, the Leaders and Best and Champions of the West.”
Based on the resilience the class demonstrated as students, they’re off to a good start, Allen noted, underscoring how her peers went the extra mile despite the challenges of the previous three years.
“When looking back at your experience here, I sincerely hope you are proud of yourself,” she said. “You persevered, you showed up, you did the work, and you’re sitting here at the finish line. Do you know how incredible that is? I’m so proud of all of us.”