‘Soul of Our Nation is on Trial,’ Civil Rights Leader William Barber Tells NCCU Grads

North Carolina Central University awarded bachelor’s degrees to 536 students on Saturday, May 12, in commencement ceremonies at O’Kelly–Riddick Stadium.

But before the graduates walked across the stage to collect their diplomas, they were rousingly challenged by the Rev. William Barber II to engage in the never-ending fight for social justice. Barber, a 1985 graduate of NCCU and the president of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, brought the crowd to its feet with an address that recalled the messages and the cadences of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“You live at a turning point in history,” Barber said. “These are tough times, troubling times. We see mean and oppressive politics taking us in the wrong direction. Why are you here? Because there’s a God who has to raise a counterforce to injustice.”

Barber noted that he had recently concluded a statewide “Putting a Face on Poverty Tour,” drawing attention to the continuing reality that 1.6 million state residents — including 600,000 children — live below the poverty line. “We found human beings living under bridges and in the woods,” he said. “We have seen poverty that makes you sick and ashamed.

“The soul of our nation is on trial,” Barber said. “If our values are right and our budgets are just, we can build a better society. We can put the poor at the center of our public policy agenda. We can reject hate and division. We can finish the job of being, in word and deed, one nation under God with liberty and justice for all.”

NCCU Chancellor Charlie Nelms presented Barber with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree and citation “in recognition of his tireless service to society as a warrior for justice and social change and a speaker of truth to power.”

As has become his custom at commencement ceremonies, Nelms publicly recognized a few of the graduates for their accomplishments and their success in overcoming obstacles.

He praised LaSaundra Maynor, who graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in Public Health Education. A mother of three, she was encouraging her eldest daughter to plan for college when her daughter urged her to do the same. So Maynor enrolled at NCCU, taking her classes and completing internships while continuing to work five 12-hour shifts a week as a nursing staff specialist at Durham Regional Hospital.

He also praised Alejandro Espitia as “an exemplar of the phrase student-athlete.” Espitia, a native of Bogota, Colombia, graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science. He was captain of the NCCU tennis team and also performed many hours of community service as a tennis teacher to poor children and a volunteer at many events. He will enter law school at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall.

Four faculty members were honored during the ceremony. Dr. Ira T. Wiggins, longtime director of NCCU’s renowned Jazz Studies program, received the UNC Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching. NCCU awards for teaching excellence were presented to Dr. Prince Hycy Bull, associate professor and coordinator of educational technology at the School of Education; Dr. La Verne Reid, associate dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Science and professor of Public Health Education; and Dr. James Pearce, associate professor of English and director of the English Department’s graduate program.

Two longtime members of the NCCU Board of Trustees, Kay T. Thomas and R. Edward Stewart, were awarded the titles of trustees emeriti.

This was the second year in which NCCU conducted separate commencement exercises for graduate and professional students. In a ceremony Friday, the university awarded master’s and law degrees to 385 graduates. More information and photos from both ceremonies can viewed at the Commencement website, http://web.nccu.edu/commencement/