Remembering Mildred Jefferson

Remembering Dr. Mildred Jefferson, 1978 Commencement Speaker

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Mildred Jefferson at Benedictine's 1978 Commencement

On May 20, 1978, Benedictine College was pleased to welcome Dr. Mildred Jefferson as its Commencement Speaker. The noted surgeon, who passed away in 2010, was the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School and the first woman to graduate in surgery from Harvard Medical School. She is best known for her opposition to the legalization of abortion and her work as president of the National Right to Life Committee.

Her speech in 1978 could very easily be given today.

“I am not willing to stand aside as there is promoted throughout the land the rather wide-spread view that those who would defend the traditional views must somehow justify their actions, whereas those who would like to change them or set them aside , need only demand that they have the privilege of doing so,” she told those gathered.

She also lamented the influence of media, television, radio, magazines and newspapers then, in a time before the onslaught of cell phones and social media.

“We have such a great reach with our communication media that one is no longer protected,” she said in 1978. “Today, as at no other time in the history of the world, ideas, whether good or bad, can reach millions of people and be acted upon before people really think them through and understand what they are doing.”

She also talked about the selfishness of those who would replace the sanctity of life with a “quality of life ethic.” Jefferson had said that her opposition to abortion was based on the Hippocratic Oath she took as a doctor. That oath, she said, morally bound her to the preservation of life.

“In an organized society, we enter into a pact. We enter into a covenant. There are choices which we agree to allow, there are choices we agree to restrict,” she said in her speech. “Unless we agree to recognize limits of our own, then the only ones in society that can truly express their own freedom of choice and their own unlimited demands are those who are bigger, richer, stronger, and more powerful than everyone else.”

“But I believe in the tradition and the dream that is this America, as a land of opportunity for all,” she continued. “But for that opportunity to be realized there has to be social justice. There has to be justice under the law. And in a sound and just system where the moral rights of all are protected, where the democratic freedoms of all are protected, the law joins on the side of the weak to make some balance in the conflict between the weak and the strong. But when the Supreme Court of the United States of America joined with the very strong against the most defenseless member of the human family, the unborn child, then the Supreme Court of the United States itself struck at the very foundation of fairness and justice in our legal system, and therefore threatened the very foundation of our democratic system.”

“For you, the young men and women who are going forth today, you must recognize what that means in terms of this free nation, holding the beacon that would light the way for the rest of the free world. For I truly believe this America of ours represents the last great hope of the world, and you with your own commitments can stand at a place where very few times in the history of the nation the individual can make the difference.”

“I call upon you to make that difference,” she told the graduates of 1978.

“I leave you in parting with the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

                So nigh is grandeur to our dust,

                So near is God to Man,

                When duty whispers low, Thou Must,

                The youth replies, I Can.”