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Stanford Law’s First Black History Month Gala Explores the Next 50 Years of Civil Rights and Racial Justice: U.S. Associate Attorney General Tony West and Senior Fellow at American Progress Maya Harris Keynote

This news story was originally published February 26, 2014, in the online version of Stanford Lawyer.

By Sharon Driscoll

Shimmering gowns and tuxedos were the attire of choice for the first-ever Black Law Students Association-sponsored Black History Month Gala last Friday night—an event to both celebrate progress and explore the next 50 years of civil rights and racial justice in America. Paul Brest Hall brimmed with a sold-out crowd of law students, faculty, alumni, and local law firm lawyers and staff, everyone eager to support BLSA and hear the keynote speakers, Tony West and Maya Harris, both Stanford Law alumni from the Class of ’92.

BLSA GalaIt was an evening of ebbing and flowing, laughter and seriousness, with progress acknowledged and steep challenges raised.

“Tonight is not an anniversary celebration,” said BLSA Co-President Krista Whitaker, JD ’15. “It isn’t a commemoration of 1964’s Freedom Summer nor the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Remembering such historical milestones in isolation contributes to a national nostalgia that too neatly suggests we are on a steady march toward progress.”

Whitaker reminded the audience of recent civil rights wins—the historic U.S. Supreme Court marriage equality decision United States v. Windsor and the decision to halt stop-and-frisk tactics in New York City. But she contrasted those wins with challenges, noting “the blow of constant attacks on affirmative action” as well as “the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act through Shelby County v. Holder.”

“We know too well our nation’s uncomfortable dance with justice—steps forward, followed by stumbles or backwards falls,” she said.

Whitaker admonished the crowd to do more, quoting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall: “The legal system can force open doors and sometimes even knock down walls. But it cannot build bridges. That job belongs to you and me.”

BLSA Co-President Leslie-Bernard Joseph, JD ’15, continued the theme by acknowledging the growing divide between “disparate experiences of what it means to be American.”

“It doesn’t take a law degree to recoil at the seemingly endless stream of lifeless bodies, innocence lost that often doesn’t find appropriate justice. From Trayvon Martin to Jordan Davis. From Renisha McBride to countless in Chicago,” he said. “The inability of America to live up to its values comes at a cost. The price of being the wrong kind of American is a more serious threat to bankrupting this country than any recession could ever be.”

Joseph made clear the role of lawyers—particularly that of lawyers of color. “This bridge building begins tonight. Tonight is about why you came to law school. Tonight is about social justice. Tonight is about public service,” he said.

Dean of Stanford Law School, M. Elizabeth Magill, introduced Maya Harris and Tony West by emphasizing the role of “creative lawyers” in civil rights.

“From Sweatt v. Painter and Brown, to Thurgood Marshall’s ascendance to the Supreme Court in 1967, to Tony Amsterdam’s work for LDF while he was here at Stanford in the 1970s, to the work of our Supreme Court clinic assistance in winning the landmark U.S. v. Windsor case last summer, exceptional lawyers—often assisted by exceptional law students—have helped shape the law and fulfill the promise of real equality.”

Maya HarrisFirst up was Harris, who began by crediting BLSA with helping her form lifelong friendships—including that with her husband, Tony West. “So my BLSA experience is still paying dividends!” she laughed.

Now a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Visiting Scholar at Harvard Law School, Harris has gained a vantage point spanning some 25 years as a litigator, educator, civil rights advocate, and social justice philanthropist. And she is optimistic.  During a five-year tenure with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, where she led the litigation, public education, advocacy, and organizing strategies of the nation’s largest ACLU affiliate, she worked on issues ranging from racial and criminal justice, to reproductive, immigrant and LGBT rights. As vice president of Democracy, Rights, and Justice at the Ford Foundation for five years, she led a global team in investing more than $150 million annually in grants, gaining a unique perspective on civil and human rights challenges, both here and throughout the world.

“The state of the civil rights movement is very strong,” she told the crowd. “I know it might not always feel that way when we must constantly re-litigate foundational achievements like the right to vote, battles we had long ago thought won. But from the vantage point I had, I came away from the last five years feeling energized and excited.”

Harris pointed to visionary leadership in the movement and innovations in community organizing and technology. But she cautioned that leaders must be strategic and conscious of the need to engage a new generation of Americans, some of whom see this as issues of the past or, with the election of an African-American president, believe we are a post-racial nation.

“7 out of 10 people believe that while there may still be isolated cases of racism in the U.S., we have largely moved beyond our racial problems,” she said, noting that increased diversity in law, in politics, and in business may allow people to feel the job is done. “But you just have to read the news to know that isn’t so. When Ted Nugent can call the president of the United States a ‘subhuman mongrel,’ you know we’re not there yet.”

Harris reminded the audience that 30 percent of the U.S. population is now made up of people of color—and that by 2042 it is estimated that it will top 50 percent. Even so, she said, progressive change will not happen by itself and that each of us has to be an active participant in shaping the next generation of change.

“We must seize opportunities to build a broader stronger movement by recognizing the connection between different issues of concern, across struggles that may seem to be different but that are really rooted in the common soil of the fight for equality,” said Harris.  She also noted, “as we look forward to the next 50 years of the Civil Rights Movement, we need to do more to bring women, especially women of color, to the center of our agenda.”

Tony WestWest echoed Harris’ call to extend the reach of the social justice net —and also emphasized the critical role that lawyers of color have to play.

“You know, each of you, about challenges. We have the shared knowledge of just how much it took to get here, the best law school in the country,” he said. “And as law students of color we have a greater appreciation of what the law should do and our obligations in the practice of law. We must, all of us, step up and reach out.”

West recalled when, just one year out of law school, he served as a special assistant to the deputy attorney general of the United States in the Department of Justice. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno summoned him to her office for a meeting and gave him sage advice. “She told me that my main job as a prosecutor was not to go out and win as many cases as I could, but to do justice in every case I handled. That charge has been my North Star ever since.”

He encouraged the group to re-imagine the next 50 years of civil justice for a new generation. “The pursuit of justice is a unifying principle,” he said. “It’s what led to the freedom summer, for people from all walks of life to march together, some to die together. And while there is no denying we have made progress, that same pursuit of justice must drive us still. We must extend its reach by broadening the scope. We must look for shared values of equality and dignity.”

Highlighting recent efforts by the Department of Justice to address some of the more difficult social justice challenges of the day, West noted that high on the list is the vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration—which has hit minority communities disproportionately.

“Too many Americans go to prison for too long and for no good law enforcement reason,” he said, adding that mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes have helped the United States reach one of the highest incarceration rates in the world.  And the cost—in disrupted lives, in lost potential—has been equaled by the astronomical cost to every taxpayer for the prison system.

“Mass incarceration is not a good investment,” he said.

West shared with the audience a new initiative by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Called “Smart on Crime,” it is designed to address key challenges, such as minimum sentences for nonviolent and drug-related crimes. In addition, the federal government will provide incentives to states to encourage them to redirect funding from prison construction to evidence-based programs and services.

Another issue firmly in West’s crosshairs is the exclusion of many formerly incarcerated from the democratic process.

“The time has come for us to reconsider laws that disenfranchise nearly 6 million Americans,” he said. “These laws disproportionally affect people of color, who are overrepresented in the prison population.  In some states, one in five African American adults is prohibited from voting because of felony disenfranchisement.  The stigma and isolation this imposes can actually increase the likelihood of recidivism. At best, these laws are outdated—at worst, history teaches that they originated as tools of oppression in the racially charged days of the post-Civil War era.”

Joseph closed the evening with the hallowed words of Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1968 sermon.

“… There is, deep down within all of us, an instinct. It’s a kind of … desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs a whole gamut of human life … . We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade … . The great issue of life is to harness [this] drum major instinct. [If left unchecked] it leads to [elitism]… selfishness … . You want to be important. You want to be significant … . It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort and pervert it.”

“His counsel seems particularly fitting for us now,” said Joseph. “When we go off and do whatever it is that’s in store for us, ‘let’s not focus on awards’ or ‘where we went to school’ or on salary, prestige of title, or any other conceits. If there’s one title you should hope for though, let them say that you were a drum major for justice.”

Joseph and Whitaker then invited the crowd to join them and continue the celebration with dancing at a nearby apartment, where overworked and conscientious law students danced the night away.

Support for this event was provided by the following law firms: Morrison & Foerster, Paul Weiss, Orrick, O’Melveny Myers, Bartlit Beck, Cleary Gottlieb, Farella Braun, Fenwick West, Sidley Austin, and Skadden and Gibson Dunn, and Sheppard Mullin. The Graduate Students Council and Stanford Law School also helped to underwrite the event.

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