Commencement 2024: Love and compassion

The president's Baccalaureate address

Dan Renzetti

Dan Renzetti

On Sunday, May 19, Peter Salovey ’86PhD delivered his final presidential Baccalaureate Address to graduating Yale College seniors on Old Campus. View full image

Graduates of the Class of 2024, family members, and friends: it gives me great pleasure to greet you today and to offer a few words on this celebratory occasion.

But first, there is a wonderful Yale tradition that I would like to honor right now:

May I ask all the families and friends here today to rise and to recognize the outstanding—and graduating—members of the Class of 2024?

And now, may I ask the Class of 2024 to consider all those who have supported your arrival at this milestone, and to please rise and recognize them?

Thank you!

I remember well the pomp and pageantry of my commencement weekend. And I share in the many emotions you are likely feeling right now after being part of this community for several years, and as you consider how your roles will soon change from students to alumni—and mine from president to faculty member.

Like the Class of 2024, I graduated as my university president was completing his service. Unlike the Class of 2024, my first years in college had not been disrupted by a pandemic. Presumably, like you, I wondered what message the president would impart for his final words. Of course, as I thought about what to say here today, I considered this same question. What came to mind was how each of us had different journeys to arrive at this day. Here is mine: like many immigrants, my father’s parents were poor in means but rich in culture and spirit. They came to the United States by way of Warsaw and Jerusalem—and later met each other on a ship crossing the Atlantic, between their worlds, old and new.

When my grandfather arrived in New York, he not only had a new country but a new name. No longer Yitzchak Leib Soloveitchik, in America he became Louis Salovey. He changed his family name in an effort to fit into his new surroundings, but he made sure to retain four letters—l-o-v-e—“love,” which I like to think of as a tribute to the family he left behind and a foundation for the one he would build.

Love and compassion were creeds by which he lived. It was about these virtues that I spoke with you four years ago as you entered Yale—and now, here today, that I want to emphasize as you prepare to depart it.1

One of the earliest, if not most striking, demonstrations of compassion I recall took place soon after my seventh birthday, when a rabbi and a reverend marched together toward justice alongside other faith leaders. Cradling a Torah in his arms—and humanity in his heart—Rabbi Everett Gendler joined the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., through the streets of Selma, Alabama, on what became known as “Turnaround Tuesday” in March 1965. One of Rabbi Gendler’s great contributions was involving American Jews in the civil rights movement. And many, including my parents, heeded that call.

The extraordinary image of Dr. King and Rabbi Gendler marching alongside one another is seared in my memory. Theirs was a coalition of different faiths but a shared morality against forces devoid of it. And, if I might add a postscript, not long after participating in the Selma campaign, Rabbi Gendler welcomed his first daughter into a world he was working to repair. Today, she sits behind me as dean of Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

As Rabbi Gendler noted at the time, “The effects of love, thought the ancients, were not simply personal, [but] social as well.”2 “Love may not be all we need,” he added, “but neither is it entirely beside the point.” Dr. King echoed these sentiments while speaking to Rabbi Gendler in what would be his final public interview in 1968. “We need a movement now to transmute rage,” he said, “into a positive, constructive force.”3 Those words resonate today. They remind us that we need to reject hate and rage—and instead find our common love for life, for community, and for peace.

Now, to be sure, the challenges before us—climate change, racial injustice, armed conflict, and extremism, to name only a few—stoke the indignation of any individual of conscience. And across this country, we’ve seen rising antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of bigotry. Without anger, we would be reconciled to accept the unacceptable, tolerate the intolerable, and thereby consign ourselves to a status quo in need of repair. Without anger, we would be bereft of the fuel necessary to fight against prejudice and violence around the globe.

So, what, then, are the grounds that support the translation of outrage into compassion, as Dr. King advised?

In thinking about the answer to this question, I am reminded of these lines of poetry from the Reverend Dr. Pauli Murray ’65JSD, eminent Yale graduate, civil rights icon, and namesake of one of our residential colleges:

But love, alas, holds me captive here
Consigned to sacrificial flame, to burn
And find no heart’s surcease until
Its more enduring uses I may learn.4

In the fall of 1963—at a pivotal moment in the civil rights struggle—the Yale Political Union invited George Wallace, Alabama’s hate-spewing governor, to speak on campus. The invitation ignited controversy at Yale—and provided occasion for activists like Pauli Murray to respond to his bigotry measure for measure. Instead, she showed the strength of her commitment to “destroy segregation by positive and embracing methods.”5

Wallace, of course, personified Southern hostility to integration. Earlier that year, he famously stood on the portico of the Alabama State Capitol and declared in his inaugural speech, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”6 And just days before he was invited to Yale, Klansmen bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four Black schoolgirls and wounding 22 others—an act of domestic terrorism for which Wallace was blamed as an instigator.

So perhaps it comes as no surprise that Kingman Brewster ’41, Yale’s president, urged students to rescind their invitation. New Haven mayor Richard Lee, meanwhile—also concerned about the tensions Wallace would inflame—deemed him “officially unwelcome” in the city of New Haven.7 More surprising is that Pauli Murray, a law school student at the time, disagreed. In an astonishing display of “drawing a circle of inclusion” large enough to incorporate George Wallace, she wrote to President Brewster in support of his right to speak at Yale.

To be sure, Dr. Murray loathed what Wallace represented. “By every cultural, spiritual, and psychological resource at my disposal,” she wrote, “I shall seek to destroy the institution of segregation . . . [but] I will not submit to segregation myself.”8 Dr. Murray, rather, maintained an abiding belief in the power of redemption over retribution—even, and most especially, for a man who threatened the principles to which she had dedicated her life.

The division sowed by Wallace stands as one of this country’s darkest chapters. But his story has a postscript—one that affirms the might of Pauli Murray’s approach.
About a decade later, Wallace—then a candidate for president—was paralyzed after an assassination attempt and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. As he was recovering in the hospital from the shooting, he had an unexpected visitor: Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress and a rival to Wallace in 1972 presidential politics.

Understandably, Chisholm’s visit left her staff concerned. How could she sit by the bedside of someone she stood so fervently—so virtuously—against? “Sometimes,” she told them, “we have to remember we’re all human beings. And I may be able to teach him something, to help him regain his humanity, to maybe make him open his eyes to make him see something that he has not seen.”9 And so she went.

In a remarkable expression of compassion and a common humanity, Chisholm told Wallace, “I wouldn’t want what happened to you to happen to anyone.” The callous George Wallace wept. And to this day, his daughter maintains, “it was after [this] visit that he started to change.”10 “Shirley Chisholm,” she continues, “planted a seed of new beginnings in my father’s heart,” culminating in the record number of appointments of African Americans he made to state positions during his final term as governor.

Wallace would later earn an honorary degree from the historically Black Tuskegee University—and the forgiveness of civil rights leaders like John Lewis, himself the recipient of an honorary degree from Yale, “because to do otherwise—to hate him,” Lewis posited, “would only perpetuate the evil system we sought to destroy.”11

Philosopher Hannah Arendt, on whom Yale also bestowed an honorary degree, eloquently advocated for this doctrine, decades before Shirley Chisholm exemplified it. The “faculty of forgiving,” she wrote, “is the exact opposite of vengeance . . . whereby far from putting an end to the consequences of the first misdeed, everybody remains bound to the process, permitting the chain reaction . . . to take its unhindered course.” “Forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences.”12

Dr. King called this redemptive approach the Strength to Love, declaring in a refrain with which you are no doubt familiar that “returning hate for hate [only] multiplies hate.”13 So, we can take pride in the fact that precisely 60 years ago, Yale presented Dr. King an honorary degree with a citation that extolled his “steadfast refusal to countenance violence in resistance to injustice.”14

For our part, as we face complex challenges that call out for concerted action, we would do well to heed his example, which requires us to inhibit our desire to dismiss those with whom we believe we cannot develop common purpose.

It is not enough to retreat into silos alongside those who are already inclined to agree with us. Nor is it effective to ostracize, call out, shame, or silence well-meaning others who do not.

Progress depends on our willingness to work together to solve common problems: to extend love and grace, compassion and cooperation, with one another, and, through these means, to build consensus.

By bridging differences—by daring to choose love and compassion over rage and hate—we can bring about the meaningful, sustainable change needed in society.

We can bring the world you will soon enter a little closer to the one we desire.
Let’s get started together. Let’s get started today.

And for me personally: at moments like this, speakers of Hebrew (my grandfather’s native language) don’t like to say “good-bye,” but rather, L’heit ra-oat; until we meet again.

Congratulations, Class of 2024.  

[1]  Salovey, Peter. “Compassion and Cooperation for Change.” Yale College Opening Assembly Address, New Haven, CT, August 29, 2020.

[2] Gendler, Everett. “Cupid Goes to Shul.” Sermon preached at the Wellesley College Chapel, Wellesley, MA, February 14, 1971. https://gendlergrapevine.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Cupid-Goes-to-Shul.pdf.

[3] “Conversation with Martin Luther King.” Conservative Judaism, Vol. 22, No. 3  (1968). https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/resources-ideas/cj/classics/1-4-12-civil-rights/conversation-with-martin-luther-king.pdf.

[4] Murray, Pauli (1970). Dark Testament: and Other Poems. Norwalk: Silvermine.

[5] Murray, Pauli (1945). “An American Credo.” Common Ground.

[6] Wallace, George (January 14, 1963). Inaugural address delivered at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, AL. https://digital.archives.alabama.gov/digital/collection/voices/id/2952.

[7] Sigel, Efrem. “New Wallace Invitation Expected at Yale Today.” The Harvard Crimson, September 24, 1963. https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1963/9/24/new-wallace-invitation-expected-at-yale/.

[8] Murray, Pauli. “An American Credo.”

[9] Capehart, Jonathan. “How Segregationist George Wallace Became a Model for Racial Reconciliation: ‘Voices of the Movement,’ Episode 6.” The Washington Post, May 16, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/05/16/changed-minds-reconciliation-voices-movement-episode/.

[10] Bernard, Diane. “How a Failed Assassination Attempt Pushed George Wallace to Reconsider His Segregationist Views.” Smithsonian Magazine, May 12, 2022. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-a-failed-assassination-attempt-pushed-george-wallace-to-reconsider-his-segregationist-views-180980063/.

[11] Lewis, John. “Forgiving George Wallace.” The New York Times, September 16, 1998. https://www.nytimes.com/1998/09/16/opinion/forgiving-george-wallace.html.

[12] Arendt, Hannah (1958). The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[13] King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1963). Strength to Love. New York: Harper & Row.

[14] “Thousands View 263rd Commencement.” Yale Daily News, June 15, 1964.

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