This year’s commencement at Rutgers University–New Brunswick took place amid a yearlong centennial celebration of Paul Robeson’s graduation from Rutgers in 1919. The keynote speakers were alumni Devin and Jason McCourty, who are best known as star defensive backs for the 2019 Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots. The commencement speaker 100 years ago, addressing a far smaller Rutgers community in a far different time, was Paul Robeson, also a star football player. Like Devin UCNB’10 and Jason UCNB’09, Robeson RC1919 was African American, lost a parent when he was very young, and felt a strong obligation to help those who were less fortunate. In the case of the McCourty twins, it has been partnering with Embrace Kids Foundation to promote the brothers’ Tackle Sickle Cell campaign, which raises awareness of and money for the blood disorder.

In the case of Robeson, only the third African American at the time to attend Rutgers, it was his calling to promote racial justice and human  rights—issues that were all-consuming as he became world famous for his acting and singing talents. Hints of these concerns were evident in his valedictory address, which was given at the Second Reformed Church in New Brunswick. Titled “The New Idealism,” it was delivered in June just months after the Allies’ victory in World War I, and Robeson acknowledged the veterans for preserving the nation’s “liberties.” He then challenged those of “the favored race” in the audience to “catch a new vision and exemplify in your actions this new American spirit. That spirit which prompts you to compassion.” Robeson further spoke of “reconstructing our entire national life and molding it in accordance with the purpose and the ideals of a new age … We can expect a greater openness of mind, a greater willingness to try new lines of advancement, a greater desire to do the right things and to serve social ends.”

You can read about the illustrious life of Paul Robeson in “A Pioneer Like No Other.”