JSU Diamond Class impressed by Federal Judge Carlton Reeves’ message

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Members of the Diamond Class: (front row, left to right) Winston Anderson, Shelton Allison, Auwilda Mason Polk, (second row) Marjorie Kelly Lee, Dorothy Winters Gross, Jerutha Stowers Steptoe; (third row) Albert Newsome, Ivory Phillips, Maxine Johnson, (fourth row) Clemontine Whitaker, and Billy Roby. (Advocate photo: Joshua Martin)

 Jackson State University’s Commencement Committee decided weeks ago that one of its distinguished alumni, Federal District Judge Carlton Reeves, would be its speaker for those graduating with doctoral, specialist, and masters’ degrees, along with the Golden Jubilee Class receiving golden diplomas. 

Weeks later, the committee made plans for the Diamond Jubilee Class to also be recognized during this graduation ceremony. 

It all came together Friday, May 3rd in the Lee E. Williams Athletics and Assembly Center between 9 and 11:45 a.m.

The Diamond Jubilee Class members, who had been added to the schedule, included: Shelton Allison, Winston Anderson, Dorothy Gross, Maxine Johnson, Marjorie Lee, Albert Newsome, Ivory Phillips, Auwilda Polk, Jerutha Steptoe, and Clemontine Whitaker. The number attending was impressive, particularly given that approval for this class’ participation was granted only a short time before the day of the celebration. Class members came out early that morning, sporting their gold-colored “Class of 1964” stoles. They sat together in the box reserved for “Guests of the President,” which enabled them to easily converse with one another.

It should be noted that the members of the Diamond Class are very close because all had taken many classes together. Eight of the 10 had shared the experience of dormitory and campus life in the days when JSU fit snuggly between Dalton and Prentiss Streets. Nine of the 10 are retired teachers who worked in the Jackson area. Nine of the 10 reside in the Jackson area. All had participated in the graduation ceremony just 10 years earlier, as the Golden Jubilee Class and had returned for subsequent events as a class.

In addition to the excitement of being recognized during the commencement ceremony as the Diamond Class, there were other reasons for the gaiety. 

For example, Shelton Allison was there helping his wife, Herticene Hudson Allison, celebrate her turn as a member of the Golden Class, having graduated from JSU in 1974. Less than a week earlier, Clemontine Whitaker, in a surprise program, had been recognized by Farish Street Baptist Church as “Woman of the Year.” At that time, she was joined by classmates Albert Newsome and Maxine Johnson. Auwilda Polk, who serves as the Class Convener, welcomed the opportunity to meet with the group and make plans for class events during the JSU Homecoming Weekend. For all, it was an opportunity, as retirees, to get out with a group of mutual friends from “way back.”

With that thought in mind, getting a chance to hear Judge Reeves “live” was truly like icing on the cake. For those who had not heard him speak before, his introduction made them curious. 

Judge Reeves is an alumnus of Jackson State University, having studied for the bachelor’s degree in the Department of History and Political Science. After graduating with honors, he attended the University of Virginia for a law degree. 

Judge Reeves was nominated by President Barack Obama to the Federal District Court as a judge for the Southern District of Mississippi. As an added attention-grabber, the audience was informed that Reeves had served as the chairman of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, being appointed by President Joe Biden.

From the beginning of his commencement address, it was clear Reeves appreciated having been asked to return to JSU for such an occasion. In turn, early into the speech, it was clear the audience, including the Diamond Class, greatly appreciated that he had been invited to speak. As his speech was being delivered, after it had ended, and during their luncheon immediately after the graduation ceremony, Diamond Class members repeatedly commented on his remarks.

There was so much talk about Reeves’ speech because it touched on so many experiential, factual, and emotional bases for the class members. That was the case very early when Reeves stated that during his tenure at JSU, Dr. John Peoples had set a high standard as a college president; that no other president had met his standard; that Dr. Marcus Thompson, the current president, had some big shoes to fill. That is and long has been the feeling of many JSU alumni and supporters, going back to Peoples’ days as president. The comment elicited tremendous applause and won the attention of many who often feel that many commencement speeches are just “cut and dried affairs.”

Reeves then proceeded to remind the graduates that JSU provided them with more than just credentials. He asserted that it had provided them with community; that its faculty and staff provided a caring and concerned community environment. Even further, he indicated that as beneficiaries, the graduates owed a debt to this community that had supported them in their educational pursuit. Commenting on this age-old condition heightened the appreciation of the senior citizens in the crowd, as many of them had utilized their education sacrificially, helping uplift the communities from which they had come and in which they had toiled.

Throughout the speech Reeves pointed to conditions in the city, state, country, and the world that called for or demanded the graduates’ education, their skills, and their sense of community. Among the events and conditions that made their education so needed were the conservative banning of books, the massive bombing of innocent citizens in Gaza, the abusive treatment of protesting university students, the rising right-wing threats to the principle of democracy, the frequent attempts to raise traitors like J.Z. George and Jefferson Davis to the status of heroes, and many other phenomena, which collectively makes it appear as if “the world is on fire.” 

 Reeves pointed out that similar conditions had occurred in the lives of the members of the Golden Class and that their JSU education had been important to them and to the world in correcting things in their days. Members of the Diamond Class understood and could also relate because its members had entered JSU during the height of the Kennedy vs. Nixon presidential campaign. They had been participants in the civil rights movement, participating in protests on the campuses of JSU, Campbell College, and Tougaloo College. Their senior year had been sandwiched between the 1963 March on Washington and the 1964 Freedom Summer Campaign. They not only witnessed the signing of, but felt that they had a hand in securing, the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, just months after their graduation. 

It was these types of challenges that Reeves placed before the 2024 graduates, as they step-up to protect and build the community. He closed by being very specific in his advice, urging the graduates to, among other things, (1) follow in the footsteps of earlier student-activists, that is, “to raise hell”; (2) vote and accept jury duty when called upon; (3) join the fight for education, healthcare, and other such human, social issues; (4) utilize their professional skills unselfishly to develop the community; and (5) generally, to go and do justice.

As the Diamond Class enjoyed one another’s company and the lunch that they shared, they talked at length about Reeves’ address. One member in particular, Winston Anderson, used an incident from his JSU experience to endorse Reeves’ comment about raising hell to address negative conditions. 

Friday, May 3rd was a great day for JSU and for all concerned. As a matter of fact, the speech and the ceremony proved to perhaps be more than was bargained for by the Commencement Committee and much more than was expected by the students receiving masters, specialist, and doctoral degrees, as well as the Golden Class of 1974. Based on personal testimonies, the writer can attest that the Diamond Class was greatly impressed. 

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JSU Diamond Class impressed by Federal Judge Carlton Reeves’ message

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
May 13, 2024