Article byPosted Featured Authorin 2016
The first time I saw the inside of a courtroom I was five years old. I testified in municipal court as an eyewitness after a white neighbor in our old downtown neighborhood let her German Shepherds out on a black maid walking down the sidewalk in front of her house. The maid, Mrs. Hartfield, was too scared to testify — afraid of what might happen to herself or her family members. It was the spring of 1972, and Hattiesburg public schools had just integrated.
I remember my parents telling me that I needed to go to court to tell the judge what had happened because while it might be dangerous for Mrs. Hartfield, I would be safe. They were confident no one would hurt me, though I’m now certain they knew it could adversely affect my father’s dental practice and my parents’ standing in polite society.
The courtroom was huge and imposing. The judge sat high above me. At age five, I was so little the judge had me stand in front of the witness box during questioning. There was not a single black person in the courtroom. I did my best to explain the injustice I witnessed — how Mrs. Hartfield tried to defend herself from the dogs with her umbrella and how the white neighbor yelled at her and called her the N-word just as ferociously as the dogs barked. I had never heard that word before, but the way the lady’s face contorted when she said it told me it was hateful. The Court ordered the neighbor to keep the dogs locked up or they would be put down. Without Mrs. Hartfield’s testimony, that was probably all the justice the Court could grant. What to my five-year-old mind should have been a case about a serious injustice became a hearing about dangerous dogs. While the dogs were indeed very intimidating, they did not hold a candle to the hatred that came spewing forth from that white neighbor toward a woman who had done nothing more than walk down the sidewalk while being black.
I learned important lessons that day. I learned that it was safer for a five-year-old white child to speak out against injustice than it was for an adult, black woman. I learned that my whiteness afforded me protection, privilege, and the power to effect change. Those lessons have never brought me joy or even any sense of comfort. Rather, I am left with the always-present feeling that until all people are safe to stand up to injustice, those of us who enjoy privilege must continue to advance the cause — even when there is risk, especially when there is risk.
Forty-five years after my first trip into a courtroom, I live in a Mississippi and a United States that is still struggling with issues of race. Just recently, Hopewell Baptist Church in Greenville was burned; buildings in Meridian were marked with racially-charged graffiti; a black student at Stone County High School had a noose put around his neck; and we’ve witnessed violence by police and against police in far too many news cycles. The presidential election has been fraught with all kinds of tension — about race, religion, gender, orientation, disability, you name it. What is our responsibility as advocates for the law in all of this? Where are the legions of upstanding white citizens denouncing those acts which so clearly harken back to Jim Crow era forms of intimidation? How can white citizens continue to claim that American Muslims must stand up and speak out against the violent acts of ISIS (which they do) if we don’t stand up and speak out against the violence perpetrated by white Americans? Why are so many of us so angry that athletes of color are peacefully demonstrating the injustice they see by kneeling during the national anthem? Why do we hold reverence to a flag more dearly than we do reverence for the ideals for which that flag stands? Why do we have such a hard time getting along? These are some of the questions that plague me these days.
I have spent time re-reading Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” which was written on April 16, 1963. In the letter, King responds to white clergymen who have criticized the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. He notes that while the clergymen “deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham … [they] fail to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.” Sound familiar? He goes on to convict white progressives as follows:
First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set a timetable for another man’s freedom, who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Except for some of the linguistic changes that have occurred over the last 50 years and the obvious fact that King was assassinated in 1968, the letter could have been written in 2016.
I wrote this article before Election Day, but it will be published after Election Day. I have no idea at this point who will be our next President. Regardless of who wins, we have a lot of work to do in our quest to become a more perfect union. I, for one, believe those of us who are privileged to hold the honorable position of lawyer in this great nation have a profound responsibility to leave it better than we found it. Are we willing to take the risk?