Former Virginia Governor Mills E. Godwin, once a strong advocate of "massive resistance" to school desegregation in his state, gave the main commencement address yesterday at predominantly black Norfolk State College.
At the University of Virginia, once open only to whites, the graduates were addressed yesterday by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who as an NAACP lawyer won the case that outlawed segregated education in the United States.
The appearances of the two men, once firmly ensconced in opposing camps on one of the great issues of the day, seemed clearly symbolic of political and social change, and suggestive of the ironies of history.
It was the university of Virginia in Charlottesville, for example, that Godwin, and many other members of Virginia's white establishment for generations, had gone to law school.
And it was Godwin who in the 1950s, had labeled integration "the key which opens the door to the inevitable destruction of our free public schools," and had called for the closing of any school in the state threatened with court-ordered desegregation.
Yesterday afternoon the graduates assembled in Charlottesville for the 152nd commencement exercises of the university founded by Thomas Jefferson heard from the man whose 29 legal victories before the Supreme Court in behalf of the rights of blacks included the Brown v. Board of Education case. It was that 1954 decision that led to the desegregation of the nation's institutions of public education.
"This is a great country," Marshall told the graduates assembled on the university's grassy lawn. "But fortunately for you, it is not perfect.
"There is much to be done to bring about complete equality, (and to) bring reality closer to theory and democratic principles."
The 69-year-old jurist reminded the 3,260 undergraduate and graduate degree recipients that "We still see students of less privileged grounds than your own or people who are just less lucky being denied quality education at all levels."
The Norfolk address delivered by Godwin before about 7,000 people, including 800 graduates, reflected not only changing times but also the lingering nature of some of the problems with which the nation and state grappled almost 30 years ago.
It was only two months ago that the state and the federal government announced agreement on a plan for further desegregation of Virginia's higher education system, after nearly 10 years of conflict on the issue.
A portion of the plan requires the state to encourage whites to enroll in Norfolk State, which is 94 percent black, and in another predominantly black institution.Numerical goals are to be set next year.
In his address, Godwin spoke of his efforts to improve higher educational opportunities for all Virginians, called Norfolk state a "unique institution...with a particular mission" and expressed hope that the mission "will not be impaired or limited by guidelines, agreements and the heavy hand of federal directives."
The former governor expressed the further hope that the curriculum at Norfolk State and Virginia's other colleges "will not be sacrified to meet some arbitrary goals that have little to do with sound educational procedures."
Students at Norfolk State reportedly had expressed dissatisfaction over the selection of Godwin as commencement speaker, but in an interview with the school paper the college's president, Harrison B. Wilson, described the former governor a strong supporter of increased funding for the school, and said his old views should not be held against him.
One observer described the reaction to yesterday's speech as "polite."