Katie Thisdell 2017-11-08 05:50:58
Howard University School of Law has launched the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center, an intellectual and legal hub for community-based civil rights work across the nation. Since opening nearly 150 years ago, Howard University School of Law has been rooted in civil rights. The private school in Washington, D.C., has produced many well-known civil rights leaders, as well as notable judges, elected officials and community leaders. Now it’s taking a step to further its legacy in a time that’s still plagued by racial injustice, discrimination and attacks on civil rights. This fall, the school is opening the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center. Marshall, the first African - American justice on the Supreme Court, was a 1933 graduate of Howard University School of Law. The center will focus on the school’s mission of producing lawyers who are public servants dedicated to their communities. “We’re laser-focused on our mission of creating lawyers who will go out into the world and make their communities a better place,” said Danielle Holley-Walker, dean of the law school. Howard’s history Founded in 1869, the private law school began with six students, who would meet at the faculty’s homes in the evenings. It was a time of dramatic change in the U.S., and there was a need to train lawyers who would help black Americans secure and protect their newly established rights. As the school grew, it came to embody legal activism. It was under dean Charles Hamilton Houston — now known as “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow” — that the school grew into an American Bar Association-accredited institution and a training ground for black lawyers. Houston became the first special counsel for the NAACP, and he and the law school became the epicenter of the litigation strategy for ending racial segregation and overturning Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate but equal” doctrine. “They didn’t sit back and react,” Holley-Walker said. “They developed a positive agenda for how they would end Jim Crow, and that’s what we want with the new center.” Houston died four years before Marshall would successfully argue Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court in 1954. Today, Howard University School of Law is dedicated to producing “social engineers,” as described by Houston: “A lawyer’s either a social engineer or … a parasite on society … A social engineer [is] a highly skilled, perceptive, sensitive lawyer who [understands] the Constitution of the United States and [knows] how to explore its uses in the solving of problems of local communities and in bettering conditions of the underprivileged citizens.” A new future Led by Executive Director Justin Hansford, a civil rights expert, the new civil rights center will have three distinct objectives: • First, the center will engage in litigation that promotes the agenda of social justice. • Second, it will extend the law school’s efforts to policy making, focusing on issues such as voter suppression and housing and education reform. • Lastly, the center will serve as a think tank, with world-class conferences and an online repository of published articles and think pieces. Howard University School of Law had a smaller civil rights clinic before the new center was founded, but only a limited number of the school’s 400 students were able to do work through it each year. The new center will expand the opportunity to all students, including undergraduates and those studying corporate or tax law as well as civil rights law. Hansford said running the new center is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for someone like him, whose family has strong ties to the university. He received his B.A. from Howard University in 2003. His mother graduated from Howard in 1990, as did his grandfather in the 1950s. Hansford was previously an associate professor of law at Saint Louis University School of Law. Since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, Hansford has been involved in community-based legal advocacy in Ferguson. He co-authored the Ferguson to Geneva human rights shadow report and accompanied Ferguson protesters and Brown’s family to Geneva, Switzerland, to testify before the United Nations. “We want to make Howard a place that is relevant to the post-Ferguson movement and the Black Lives Matter movement,” Hansford said. “What we saw in the 20th century around civil rights, I believe we’re going to see something similar coming out of Ferguson.” There’s a generational gap, he said. Young activists haven’t identified with the civil rights movement, and the older generation doesn’t fully understand today’s Black Lives Matter movement. “Here at Howard, we have people who are all in,” Hansford said. “People from the civil rights generation are all in, and they’re working with me from the Ferguson and Black Lives Matter side of the aisle.” The new center will have the opportunity to convene organizations and advocates and set the agenda. Hansford said it can be a place of learning and intellectual stimulation as well as a place of advocacy. “Our goal is not to be some sort of power player per se,” he said. “Our goal is to provide a platform that is acceptable to everybody.” “We’re laser-focused on our mission of creating lawyers who will go out into the world and make their communities a better place.” — DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER, DEAN HOWARD UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF LAW The center will help define what civil rights means in the 21st century, tackling everything from income inequality to environmental injustice to immigration. “A lot of the litigation done in the civil rights era was a top-down strategy where lawyers developed strategy,” Holley-Walker said. “Our new center and its vision is based in community-based strategy.” While centers at many law schools are driven by faculty members’ interests, this one will be driven primarily by community needs. For example, if the center receives many calls about immigration, then students and staff could shift their work to that area. “How can we, as lawyers, be the most use for this community in need?” Holley- Walker said in explaining the center’s objective. To read profiles about other law schools, visit us at www.prelawInsider.com
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