METCO, an organization created in a push for racial justice in education a half century ago, virtually celebrated its current class of seniors Saturday against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter protests nationwide.
METCO president Milly Arbaje-Thomas fit the 264 largely Black and brown students who graduated from one of 30 predominantly white suburban high schools into that struggle for equity.
“METCO students are not only making a daily journey from city to suburbs, but they are also on a journey to change people’s minds and hearts about race, equity, and inclusion,” she said in a statement.
Saturday’s commencement, which included a “virtual procession” and short speeches from politicians and celebrities, had echoes of a long struggle for educational equality in Boston.
During the commencement, Arbaje-Thomas encouraged students to “step into the legacy of school integration, a legacy that continues to be a necessity today because, what can shift the hearts and minds of people in a more natural way than the bond of a friendship that is created in a classroom?”
Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity was founded in 1966 during a federally mandated school integration.
A decade later, Boston was engulfed by conflict over court-ordered busing, as City Council president Kim Janey, a METCO graduate, recalled on her keynote address Saturday.
Janey, who graduated in 1983, remembered the “great responsibility” of integrating Boston’s public schools at age 11, and her school bus being stoned, hearing racial slurs, needing police escorts.
“It was a very traumatic experience,” she said.
She was enrolled in METCO and finished high school in Reading, where Janey said, “I faced my own challenges and I was able to overcome.”
But, she added, “None, I’m sure, are as great as the ones that you have faced. You guys have persevered.”
The student speaker, Wayland High School Student Council president Shawn Bernier, reflected on his journey as a transgender Black man, which he called an “unveiling.”
“It was so freeing,” he said of revealing his identity to his classmates in seventh grade, “to discover this newfound appreciation, for voicing my perspective, and for understanding myself while shedding the stigmas associated with my decision.”
He spoke of his experiences playing football and wrestling, and of his emerging political voice.
“I am sharing all this because it is important to remember where we once began. Imagine if we stopped at the moment that we faced the most adversity. Imagine if we never took the steps to fight for our liberty. Imagine if we never took the steps to organize against abominable injustice or to even strive for historic greatness,” Bernier said.
“We have been forced to step into a place of courage and resilience, a place that none of us could have ever perceived or imagined four years ago.”
The rest of the program was devoted to prerecorded pep talks and reflections on the impact of the METCO program, with speakers including Governor Charles D. Baker, Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston, New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty, and Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr.
State Representative Alice Hanlon Peisch, who represents Weston, Wayland, and Wellesley, told the students that “your presence in these schools has been an enormous gift to all of us. We learned to cherish what makes us different and to unleash the values that we have in common.”
“Hopefully,” she said, “we have also learned to reject stereotypes and to stand up to prejudice.”
Baker recalled the impact of relationships he built with METCO students while his mother served as a “METCO mom,” as well as the relationships his own children have made with students in the program.
“It’s a truly special program,” he said.
Janey, who represents Roxbury, as well as parts of the South End, Dorchester, and Fenway, put a message to graduates succinctly, eschewing the old advice about students being future leaders.
“We are counting on you,” she said. “You are not the leaders of tomorrow. You are the leaders right now.”
Lucas Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.