Southern University Law Center students last month held a forum in Baton Rouge about citizen rights and resources in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Among the topics of discussion — the McWaters vs. FEMA case, which secured continuing temporary housing for residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina, and what citizens should expect in job security, housing, financing, and property should they ever encounter another great storm.
“Our motto is that we are legal thought-leaders for the 21st century,” said SULC Chancellor John Pierre. “We use the law as a tool to address issues in our communities, but that we are the advocates and leaders who will change conditions through practice and interpretation of the law.”
By enrollment numbers, Southern boasts the largest historically black law school in the country, enrolling more than 675 full and part-time students. But they are a part of a network of teaching, learning and law preparation made up of more than 3,000 students and hundreds of faculty and staff nationwide at HBCUs; a network that is quietly leaving an indelible mark on the movements to eliminate police violence, predatory economic and political action, and imbalance in the justice system against black individuals, families and communities.
Students, faculty and staff over decades have provided pro bono counsel and research in civil rights and social justice cases all over the country. But in recent years, these schools have become more visible in protests, petitioning and community education around dire issues of injustice.
In 2012, students at the Howard University School of Law drew national attention for their viral “Am I Suspicious” campaign following the murder of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.
But what isn’t widely known is that the original petition calling for the prosecution of acquitted killer George Zimmerman was written by HU law student Kevin Cunningham. Law students have also filed dozens of amicus briefs in lawsuits regarding fair housing and affirmative action in higher education.
Law schools at North Carolina Central University and Florida A&M University have become central sites for information and advocacy in the ‘Ban the Box’ movement, which seeks to eliminate questions about criminal background from federal and state job application processes in the effort to promote reentry and mobility for offenders.
At the University of the District of Columbia, police racial profiling hit close to home, as Jason Goolsby, a UDC undergraduate student was detained by police after a white woman said he made her feel ‘uncomfortable’ at a local bank. School officials and attorneys publicly addressed the matter at the school of law, where Goolsby has yet to file a formal lawsuit against the District’s police department.
As activists nationwide continue to rally beneath the banner of ‘Black Lives Matter,’ it is the HBCU law schools which provide nearly exclusive outreach to the people for whom this call of advocacy most rings true. HBCUs use the communities in which they are stationed as the living labs where examples of discrimination play out across black culture, lifestyle, vocation and political access.
And unlike other predominantly white or Ivy League institutions where most students have to travel to and learn the culture of the underserved, the HBCU mission ensures that students from these underserved communities have the best chance at reversing the racist practices and policies which sharpened their desires to practice law in the first place.
Even when objectors call the mission counterproductive to the law industry, it is clear that communities benefit from their existence and expertise in wide-ranging ways. How many lawyers with alumni ties to HBCU law schools today work in public defense, or how many students advocate tirelessly for voting rights, zoning, school districting and other topics about which the general community may not know, or care to know? How many faculty members have provided counsel and strategy on mobilization efforts against systemic discrimination?
Syracuse University’s Cold Case Justice Initiative seeks to unravel murders and injustices from the civil rights era, for the humanity in easing the pain of American atrocities past. HBCUs seek to eliminate the cold cases of tomorrow, but not those associated with dead and dismembered bodies, but rather, lost economic development and political voice in black communities.
There are few landmark civil rights decisions in which HBCUs were not represented by alumni lawyers, as litigants, or as the protestors which helped to spur support for court action. That mission continues today, and should be heralded for their continuing effort to advance the nation’s social justice imperative.