Fifty years ago today, on June 20, 1969, Life Magazine published an article about notable recent college graduates and their rousing commencement speeches. Nested in the middle of the article was Hillary Rodham’s photo and an excerpt of her commencement address to the graduating class of Wellesley College. Rodham was the first student in the college’s history to give a commencement address.
Rodham’s speech drew national attention for the explicit praise for the constitutional right to protest. Protests permeated the national conversations in 1969. Young Americans who had been drafted had been fighting in the Vietnam War for fourteen years. In April, 1969, students at University of California, Berkley seized an empty lot to form a People’s Park. Also that month, over 300 students at Harvard University took control of a university building to protest the school’s administration.
Rodham fearlessly proclaimed that protest is an American identity and that dissent is a necessary pathway to a new and brighter future. She said:
We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating modes of living. So our questions about our institutions, about our colleges, about our churches, about our government continue . . . . Every protest, every dissent, is unabashedly an identiy in this particular age.
If the experiment in human living doesn’t work in this country, in this age, it’s not going to work anywhere.
Rodham’s first appearance in a national magazine set the tone for her future of challenging the institutions of our nation. From announcing at her wedding reception that she was keeping her own last name to becoming the first woman to be a major party presidential candidate, she has forced people to ask the hard questions about the institutions we hold dear.
Her words still hold power today. After the 2016 election, millions of women marched in cities all over the United States in protest. In 2018 and 2019, thousands of teachers walked out in a strike to demand better wages and educational access for students. Locally, Arkansans have advocated successfully to protect the future of the Buffalo National River. Students at area high schools staged a walk out in response to recent school shootings around the country. As Rodham noted, protest continues to be a cornerstone of our nation’s battles for equal rights and protections and an invaluable part of our democratic society.
Listen to Hillary Rodham’s entire speech from May, 1969. Clips from PBS Frontline and A & E Biography have been added for context.