May. 10, 2014 @ 05:32 PM

Civil rights attorney Lezli Baskerville talked about some “ancient history” Saturday while urging more than 700 graduates from North Carolina Central University to use their knowledge and skills to create a more humane and open society.

She reminded students that next Saturday is the 60th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision declaring so-called separate-but-equal schools unconstitutional. That Supreme Court decision indirectly led to the Freedom Summer, in which college students traveled to the South to register African-Americans to vote, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Baskerville said.

Freedom Summer was led “by students just like you, my sons and daughters,” Baskerville told the graduates. “You may ask, Why am I talking to you about this ancient history? Let me tell you why,” she said. “As you graduate today, while some progress has been made toward achieving a more open and inclusive society,” many inequities remain, and some problems have re-emerged. In North Carolina, 41 percent of children of color live in poverty, she said, telling graduates, “you have a responsibility” to use your skills to help attack that problem. She encouraged environmental sciences students to address the problems of climate change.

“Voter suppression, which we thought was a thing of the past, has reared its ugly head again. Please use some of your time and talent, your new skills, to do something about it,” Baskerville said.

Baskerville, a civil rights attorney and policy adviser to presidents and members of Congress, is president and CEO of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. She also has managed The Baskerville Group, which provides legal and government relations advice to businesses, nonprofits and other institutions.

She spoke at the 123rd commencement at NCCU, whose graduating class was the largest in the school’s history, said NCCU Chancellor Debra Saunders-White, who presided over her first graduation ceremony as head of the school.

She called Baskerville “a great advocate for NCCU and our sister institutions.”

Baskerville also said she was concerned that colleges and universities are preparing students “with high intellectual quotients but low caring quotients… with more and more worldliness but less and less wonder and awe for the sacredness and wonder of life.” She asked the students to remember the school’s motto of “Truth and Service” and to be agents for change.

Among the honorees at the ceremony was NCCU alumnus Leon Pendarvis, who received an honorary doctorate. Pendarvis, now the music director for “Saturday Night Live,” has worked as a producer and musician for Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones, Eric Clapton and many other artists.

After conferring the degrees, Saunders-White asked students “to use this degree to better this nation …. It is your responsibility to keep the dream of our founder, Dr. James E. Shepard, alive,” she said.

After Saturday’s celebration, students were relieved and excited about the next step. “I feel great. All of my hard work paid off,” said Tiara McKeithan, who earned a degree in criminal justice. Terrence Gibbs, who majored in physical education, said he was “excited and ready to start looking for a job.” He hopes to find a position as a personal athletic trainer.

“This is a great feeling,” said Leslie Blocker, a public health education graduate. “It’s been a long five years for me.”