Judge inspires Livingstone students during fall convocation speech
Last Friday during Livingstone College’s annual Fall Convocation, Judge Rickye McKoy-Mitchell recited an African proverb that says, “Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.”
Then she reiterated it to ensure the students heard her.
“When I was in college I’d call home crying, unsure I would make it,” said McKoy-Mitchell, whose bachelor’s and law degrees are from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “And my mother would say to me, ‘God has brought you too far to leave you now.’ ”
In a powerful speech that demonstrated compassion and humility, McKoy-Mitchell didn’t waste time talking at the students but instead talked to them.
And they listened.
“I thought Judge McKoy-Mitchell’s speech was very inspiring and encouraging,” said freshman Robert Melton, 18, of Raleigh. “I liked it when she picked up the microphone from the podium and started walking into the crowd. I took from her speech to never give up on your dreams and to use the resources you have available to achieve your dreams. Many other students really liked her speech, too.”
With good reason.
McKoy-Mitchell didn’t boast about her numerous and impressive accomplishments but instead imparted sage advice in an uplifting way while speaking from the heart.
She’s been a district court judge in Mecklenburg County for 15 years and presides primarily in juvenile court. Her days are spent hearing trials and motions involving custodial and delinquency cases within the Department of Social Services’ Youth and Family Services Division. She has presided in all of the district courts, including criminal, domestic, civil, domestic violence and child support.
“Have you ever had the experience where people said you’re not going to be anything, you’re not going anywhere or you’re a failure?” McKoy-Mitchell asked the students. Then she told them she always asks the juveniles who appear before her about their future aspirations.
“I ask them where they see themselves in the future after they graduate from high school,” McKoy-Mitchell said. “Many of them say they want to be the next great NBA player or the next NFL player, or maybe they’ll become rappers. Then one day when I asked that question to a young man who was only 14-years-old, in a very quiet voice he said, ‘If I’m living.’ You can imagine that that broke my heart.”
It turns out the teen was a major drug trafficker who was quite adept at running a business.
“He spit out a business plan to me, calculations and everything from profits generated to plans for sales locations,” McKoy-Mitchell said. “It was amazing. So I asked him what about a career in accounting, and he looked at me like a deer caught in headlights.”
McKoy-Mitchell said she connected the teenager with some professional adults, including an accountant. The boy began excelling in his academics – including exceptionally high math test scores – while his behavior dramatically improved.
After sharing that poignant story, McKoy-Mitchell stepped into a black judicial robe and began detailing a story that literally came to life about “a little girl born in a small town in eastern North Carolina, a place where I’d never seen a lawyer much less a judge who looked like me, a little girl who defied the odds and refused to become a stereotype.”
McKoy-Mitchell, a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., is a former member of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation Advisory Panel and the Board of Visitors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, among other professional and civic organizations. She’s also the recipient of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Black Alumni Reunion’s Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumni Award, named after the university’s first black graduate. She’s a recipient of all three of the awards given by North Carolina Lawyers Weekly and The Mecklenburg Times — Leaders in Law, Women of Justice and 50 Most Influential Women – and one of the youngest recipients of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, North Carolina’s highest civilian award.
Not bad for a girl who was raised by a single parent, Helen McKoy, and her maternal grandparents. Despite economic and educational challenges, they expected and encouraged McKoy-Mitchell to understand and strive to obtain possibilities way beyond her circumstances.
“Because of the way my mom and my grandparents reared me, I know we must start eliminating excuses,” said McKoy-Mitchell to loud applause. “They would tell me about Philippians 4:13 which says, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. They knew to share that with me because from a statistical standpoint I shouldn’t have been able to graduate high school, go to a four-year college, go to law school, practice law at both the state and federal levels and be seated on a district court bench in the largest county in the state. That’s about defying the odds.”
Livingstone College President Dr. Jimmy R. Jenkins, Sr. constantly tells his students to defy the odds versus reaffirming the stereotypes.
“We don’t’ have to be limited by our background,” McKoy-Mitchell said. “With the holistic approach under which they’re teaching you at Livingstone, you’re living in your possibilities, you’re living in your potential. The only person who can stop you is you.”
Before taking her seat, McKoy-Mitchell asked the students to repeat after her: I will continue to defy the odds. I will continue to defy the odds. I will continue to defy the odds.
“Don’t make those just words,” she challenged. “Turn them into action.”
After her speech, McKoy-Mitchell was given a large bouquet of flowers and a plaque from Jenkins and Bishop George E. Battle, Jr., chairman of the Livingstone College Board of Trustees and senior bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
In his greetings, Battle mentioned stop and frisk measures that have come under scrutiny in New York, Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, the Sept. 19 shooting of 13 people in Chicago, the Sept. 16 murder of a teenager in Salisbury and the Sept. 14 shooting death of an unarmed man by a Charlotte police officer.
“We’re counting on this class of freshmen and Livingstone College to lead the peaceful movement in saying we have the audacity to hope for a better day,” Battle said. “You might not be Albert Einstein, but God has given you something because you’re here at Livingstone College. Think for yourself, be good students and go out and change the world.”
Other speakers Friday included Salisbury Mayor Paul B. Woodson, Jr., Dr. Kathryn J. Moland, president of the Faculty Assembly, Shari Albury, Student Government Association president, and Anna Kay Edwards, Miss Livingstone College. State W. Alexander, executive assistant to the president and director of public relations, welcomed special guests, including local politicians, former Livingstone College Board of Trustees members, AME Zion Church leaders and members, Livingstone alumni and McKoy-Mitchell’s mother and husband, Rick.
As he welcomed the freshman class to Salisbury, which with 395 members is among the largest in Livingstone history, Woodson encouraged all Livingstone students to strive for greatness.
“You’re at a good school, and they want you to graduate and be successful in life,” he said. “They want to nurture you and help you get along.”
Also during the Convocation, a special candlelight ceremony was held for the freshman class. The special, rites of passage event featured 14 freshmen who proclaimed they would speak for their class while discussing the significance of wisdom, love, compassion, tenacity, truth, justice, art, beauty, character, equality, knowledge, faith, hope and scholarship.