A look into Morgan State University’s most memorable commencement ceremonies; what to expect this year

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump will join a long list of notable Morgan commencement speakers, including Joe Biden, Toni Morrison, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Jah'I Selassie, Editor-in-Chief

Anticipation and excitement fill the Hughes Memorial Stadium each year as families gather to celebrate graduation. 

Morgan State University’s commencement ceremonies are a must-see event for faculty, staff, and of course, graduating students.

The history of Morgan’s commencement ceremonies is often overlooked though notable names like Nancy Pelosi, former President Bill Clinton, and then-Vice President Joe Biden are among the list of past speakers. 

This year’s commencement speaker is civil right’s attorney Ben Crump, who will speak at the May 20 ceremony.

Crump has represented the families of Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tamir Rice, and Ahmaud Arbery, among others. Each of these were cases of unarmed Black people killed by police or other powers. 

He has become an activist. To date, he’s won more than 200 cases related to police brutality over the course of his 25-year law career.

Crump holds a law degree from Florida State University.

He has delivered commencement speeches at other historically Black colleges and universities in past years, including Texas Southern University in 2021 and North Carolina Central University on May 6.

On Saturday, May 20, Crump will address Morgan State University’s Class of 2023.

A great deal of preparation happens before bestowing the honor of speaking at Morgan’s commencement. 

The decision is made by the university president. He says he often begins his search as early as one year prior to the ceremony.

According to Morgan President David Wilson, prior to making the official decision of who will speak at the ceremony, he seeks informal university-wide suggestions from trusted individuals.

“The commencement speaker should be a person who can inspire the graduates who has a motivating story to tell, and who can provide some wisdom to the graduates as they are on the precipice of leaving Morgan State University,” Wilson said.

Some commencement speakers are offered an honorarium (payment) for the venture, but all are not able to accept it “because of their positions” according to Wilson. 

Past commencement speakers have included entertainers, politicians, literary legends, and radio personalities like Tom Joyner in 2018, who gave each graduate a $5 bill during that year’s ceremony. 

In the same year, Morgan students collaborated with Wilson that same year to invite award-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar to speak at commencement in a viral YouTube video.

While the job of selecting a speaker for the ceremony is left solely to the university president, the commencement committee meets every two weeks in the calendar year leading up to the ceremony to ensure preparations are made at the necessary rate.

Burney J. Hollis, who was the commencement  committee’s chair from 1992 to 2018, explained that because the ceremony is both large and important to faculty, staff, and students, the committee specifically selects inspirational speakers.

For Hollis, some of the most memorable speakers who have made history at Morgan included Martin Luther King Jr., newly-elected Governor Wes Moore, and Jesse Jackson.  

These famous figures are only part of the reason why commencement is a particularly exciting event for Morgan staff and students. 

“The President will tell you in a minute that he has two most exciting moments during the academic year. Number one is delivering the matriculation convocation address to incoming freshmen. The second is watching them four or five years later walk[ing] across that stage. It’s really very rewarding,” Hollis said.