Bending the arc of history: African Americans and the University of Alabama School of Law. This was the name of the conference at the law school last week. This phrase springs from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1965 speech at the Alabama State Capitol at the end of the Selma-to-Montgomery March. Dr. King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Theodore Parker rendered a version of this concept years earlier. The conference was about the University of Alabama Law School’s exclusion of Black people from its inception in 1831 to the first graduating class of African Americans in 1972 and the impact of subsequent classes. I was one of several panelists.
The following is some of what I said, tried to say or wanted to say. In 1964 or 1965, Professor Milton Hurst, my history teacher at Talladega College, announced that he was going to apply to the University of Alabama Law School. One of the students joked, “You better get the National Guard.” It was only half a joke. The exchange somehow impacted the thoughts I had about being the first African-American to attend the University of Alabama Law School. At the time, I knew that Alabama had a law/policy of reimbursing Black students who attended law schools out of state. I knew that Black people could not attend the University of Alabama, but I did not really understand the "why" of segregation until many years later.
The panelists were asked to share how we came to attend law school. I told the story of my reading about Thurgood Marshall in 1955 in discarded newspapers my mother brought home from the wealthy White family for whom she worked. Marshall was the lead lawyer in the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case, which declared segregation in public education as inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional. When my teacher asked the weekly question of what we were going to be when we grew up, I stood and said, “I’m going to be a lawyer when I grow up.” The whole class laughed at me and I cried. The more they laughed, the more I cried; the more I cried, the more they laughed. In response, I promised myself that I was going to be a lawyer if it killed me; if it was the last thing I did. But I was not going to tell anyone. I did not want to suffer the pain of derisive laughter again. Because of segregation, no other child in the room could even conceive of me or any other Black child being a lawyer.
While at Talladega College, I was awarded a scholarship to attend Harvard College in the summer of 1965 to study history. I made an A. I spent my junior year at Boston University and made very good grades. I nearly reached the 90th percentile on the LSAT (Law School Admission Test). Harvard Law School awarded me a full scholarship. I didn’t even apply to Notre Dame Law School but was admitted and awarded a full scholarship. Yet I could not even pay to go to the University of Alabama Law School. I did not fully understand.
I knew segregation firsthand. I knew Black and White people could not go to school together, use the same restrooms, drink from the same water fountains, try on the same clothes, eat in the same restaurants, socialize together, hold the same jobs, be paid at the same rate, etc. I knew segregation was strongly enforced by widespread violence including state-sanctioned terrorism (lynching). But I did not really understand.
It was only in the last decade or so that I fully understood. To justify the kind of chattel slavery that existed in America, Black people were declared to be on the level of animals – hogs, cows, mules, dogs, etc. Our ancestors were not only enslaved for life, but their offspring were enslaved for life. The enslaver had the right to name their chattel and to determine the language spoken, the religion practiced, the existence of family, what the chattel could own, etc. There was no slavery like American slavery where the slaveholder determined every element of identity of the enslaved.
I read the 1857 U.S. Supreme Court Dred Scott decision in law school. I did not fully understand. I read it again some years ago. For the first time, I fully understood it said that Black people were considered as subhuman and that no Black, whether slave or free, had any rights a White person was bound to respect. I finally understood why White people could not be perceived as socializing, eating, attending the same schools, etc. with subhumans on the level of cows, mules, dogs, hogs, etc.
When we talk about today’s problems, we don’t get to the root of the problem; we examine the leaves on the problem tree. When we talk about segregation, we don’t get to the root of the problem; we examine the limbs of the problem tree. Even when we talk about slavery every blue moon, we don’t get to the root of the problem; we talk about the trunk of the problem tree. But the problem is in the roots of the tree, and we must examine the roots.
Epilogue – It is almost impossible to correct any problem when we don’t know the root cause of the problem. Therefore, those of us trying to bend the arc of history toward racial justice must understand the root cause of the injustice.