The Rev. Jesse Jackson urged Morgan State University's newest graduates Friday to persevere despite injustices they might face.
"I want to talk today about free but not equal," the civil rights leader said, telling graduates they are the latest generation to face racial adversity. "Don't adjust to their vision," Jackson said. "Don't internalize racism."
Morgan State, he said, has given them the tools to fight, to serve, to advocate change and to advance change.
About 370 students received undergraduate and graduate degrees at the Hill Field House on the Northeast Baltimore campus.
The historically black university also commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by awarding honorary degrees to a group of Morgan graduates who staged peaceful protests during the civil rights movement at theaters, lunch counters and other segregated places in Baltimore.
Carolyn Wainwright and Jerilyn Turpin, who were once roommates at Morgan, were among those to receive honorary degrees.
Turpin said she and other students were arrested in February 1963 during a protest at the Northwood Shopping Center near campus. The theater thee wouldn't allow African-Americans in, she said, and Morgan students were forced to take a bus downtown to a theater for blacks.
"I was thinking, 'I need to do this. This is not right,'" Turpin said.
She remembers being taken to a jail on Pine Street and later being transferred to the jail downtown. She recalled the sound of the metal gate closing behind her and the realization setting in that she had been arrested. She recalled how she and other student protesters were housed in a common area with others charged with serious crimes, including one woman who was accused of killing her husband.
"I was scared because I wasn't locked in a cell," she said.
But now, at the age of 72, Turpin said she has no regrets, knowing she was part of a movement to make changes for future generations.
Wainwright was one of the first students to purchase a ticket at the Northwood theater following the sit-in. In the commencement program, she is pictured in a black-and-white photo with three other well-dressed students holding peace signs in front of the theater marquee.
University officials also honored Autherine Lucy Foster, the first black student at the University of Alabama in 1956, with an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree. Foster was expelled from the university after threats were made against her. She contested her expulsion in court, eventually returning and earning a degree in the 1990s.
Jackson spoke of how the latest generation of graduates face similar challenges.
He spoke about the history of civil rights for African-Americans, beginning with the end of slavery, the end of Jim Crow laws and gaining the right to vote. The latest struggle, he said, is "access to capital and technology" and "the fundamental lockout of access to industrial growth."
Jackson spoke of issues that plague cities like Baltimore, where relationships between the community and police are strained, jobs can be scarce and many are saddled with debts from student loans and mortgages.
He spoke of the Black Lives Matter movement and how "the names change but the challenges remained the same."
Jackson spoke just days after jurors failed to reach a verdict in the trial of a Baltimore police officer charged in the death of Freddie Gray. He mentioned the recent highly publicized deaths of black men, including Gray, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and how their deaths could lead to change.
He also offered hope, noting the large number of engineering graduates the university produces.
He urged the graduates to "choose hope and go forward, not cynicism and go backward."