On the surface, the Delaware State University’s graduate commencement ceremony seemed like business as usual – at least, by pandemic standards.
Masked guests, graduates and faculty packed Memorial Hall basketball court as Pomp and Circumstance played. Students – the largest graduate school class in DSU’s history – shook hands with trustees and received their diplomas.
But the shadow of the women’s lacrosse team’s traffic stop in Georgia in April loomed over the ceremony. It wove its way into the remarks given by the university president and lieutenant governor. It even inspired National Football League Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith to rewrite his keynote speech Thursday morning before he took the podium.
“It hit me on so many levels,” he said. “It hit me like a mother and hit me like a parent and hit us all (as) people of color.”
He pointed out the irony that players of the nation’s oldest sport were confronted with “America’s oldest sin,” and demanded that the Liberty County police officers who conducted the search be held accountable.
Smith acknowledged that the officers – all of whom were white – “will never understand” what it was truly like for those Black student-athletes. However, he said, “it is our job to continue to remind them.”
“We have an obligation not only to react to issues of racism but to embrace the very birthright that all of us have,” Smith said.
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DSU President Tony Allen, who did not publicly address the incident until an article detailing it was published in the school newspaper three weeks later, also spoke about the lacrosse team in his address.
He called the search for drugs in the teams’ belongings “irrational, ill-formed and ignominious prejudice.”
“The battle is not over,” he said.
It is still unclear when Allen learned about the incident or why he waited so long to respond to it. At the time of this publication, he has declined all media requests for comment.
Former Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is expected to address the traffic stop in her keynote speech at DSU undergraduate commencement Saturday morning.
“We will stand for what is right,” Smith said. “And we will fight the legacy of racism for the rest of our lives.”