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Graduates: Black Excellence is a Journey

At a recent scholarship ceremony, Judge William “Cruz” Shaw had a message for ten high school graduates—show up and don’t give up! He learned that lesson the hard way after being denied admission to several law schools. He then received a call from Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, and they gave him just a few days to make it to orientation. 
He quit his World Savings job in San Antonio on a Thursday, found a place to live in Houston on a Saturday, and was just one of ten students who made the remaining cut. He knew he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to show up. 
“I thought attorneys came from families who had money,” said Shaw, whose single mom often worked two jobs to make ends meet. “I figured I swung for the fence and missed it. It was insane when I got the call because I had to get there fast. I didn’t have attorneys in my family and never had to use an attorney, so I didn’t know what to expect.”
Shaw said when he got to orientation, it was implied that half of the students wouldn’t graduate due to the academic rigor. He said he treated going to law school like a job and cut out partying, going to clubs, and hanging out with friends to keep up. 
Now, as a judge for Bexar County’s 436th Juvenile District Court, Shaw understands the stories of many of the young men who go through his courtroom. Shaw, who’s bi-racial,  didn’t come from privilege. His mother, who’s Hispanic, did a good job hiding their lack of resources. He also said playing baseball kept him out of trouble. In 2022, Shaw was the first Black man elected to a state district judge position in Bexar County. 
While Shaw, too, faced life obstacles as a young man, he reiterates to young adults, “We have to get out of our heads and stop finding excuses not to be successful. We have to continue to pursue excellence.”
The Journey to Black Excellence
Black excellence was also the message at this year’s commencement ceremony at Clark Atlanta University – now one of the top HBCU commencement speeches on YouTube. Dr. Daniel Black gave a passionate speech that combined church service and graduation rolled into one when he said these powerful words: “Here They Come Y’all, Here They Come…doctors, lawyers, writers, business owners, teachers … (the graduates) are the dream of the slave, the hope of the angels. The promise of the ancestors, the answers to grandmama’s prayers. The guarantee of granddaddy’s work.”
As Dr. Black had the crowd on their feet, he reminded the college graduates that Black excellence is within them and their ancestors have paved the way for them: “If Harriett Tubman ran to freedom, you can run to your destiny. Martin Luther King didn’t march so you can get a degree and chill. … Black folks didn’t pick cotton, so you can look cute in a black robe… .” 
Black scientist George Washington Carver’s famous quote, “Education is the key that unlocks the golden door to freedom,” still holds true today. 
According to the national youth nonprofit, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, more Black students are earning their associate degrees or higher compared to years past at 996,000 students for the 2017-2021 timespan compared to 679,000 students for the 2007-2011 period. This is good news since multiple data factors indicate that students earning at least a bachelor’s degree are less likely to be unemployed and typically will be eligible for more opportunities – carers providing health and retirement savings. 
For many students the thought of taking on college debt can be daunting, but investing in one’s self also means increased wages. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said people who earned a bachelor’s degree in 2021 had median weekly earnings of $1,334 compared to $899 for those who had some college but didn’t earn a degree. 
Shaw, too, knew to improve his life, he had to reach higher. When it came time to take his Texas Bar exam, he was determined to pass it on the first try because he couldn’t afford not to. 
“I had a car note, bills and I couldn’t wait another year,” he added. “I had run out of options. I was couch surfing in San Antonio while studying for the bar exam. I would get up early to study and then go back at night where I was staying so I wouldn’t be in the way.”
Shaw eventually became a criminal defense attorney and transitioned to politics in 2017 when he was elected to the San Antonio City Council and represented District 2 (the historic East Side). In 2018, he resigned to become an associate judge in the 436th Judicial Court. 
As a visible leader in the community, Shaw also wants more successful Black graduates to come back to San Antonio after their college careers to serve the community and be mentors—this will help keep the Black and Brown students out of his court. 
He also advises young adults from his experience in juvenile court, “Be careful who you hang around with. Don’t be easily influenced,” Shaw adds. Don’t be afraid of being smart. Even if you don’t make the best grades, you can still be successful.”
So, as we enter another season of graduations, let’s encourage Black students from grade schools to those earning their bachelor’s degrees, and beyond that, Black excellence is achievable. 
In the era of anti-DEI policies in the United States, the encouragement of leaders like Shaw and the fiery speeches of Dr. Daniel Black from Clark Atlanta are needed more than ever to remind students of their potential. 
Dr. Black closed his speech by telling the proud 2024 Clark scholars, “They don’t you are going to be a lawyer. But you are! They don’t think you are going to get into med school. But you are! They don’t know you are going to teach in public schools and change the way Black children see themselves. But you are! … So when people doubt you, graduates, get up and dance.”

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