I was on a Mohonason panel, talking with students about the Civil Rights Movement. The panel included Reggie Jackson, an African-American folk singer who sang on the front lines of the iconic demonstrations, his friend, Greg Greenaway, a southern-born white deeply committed to civil rights, and Nell Stokes, an activist raised in the segregated South before moving here and spending her life fighting for freedom. I have enormous respect for all of them. I was invited because I walked over from my apartment to the March on Washington where Dr. King delivered his I Have a Dream speech, and because I worked on civil rights in several legal offices.
We concluded by talking about what to say when people disparage African-Americans. I responded that I talk about Frank.
Frank died a few years ago. Before I knew him or even that he was Black, I listened to West Virginia DAs trading stories about how good a lawyer Frank was. A few days later I met Frank, a colleague at the West Virginia College of Law, respected statewide, eventually on the state Supreme Court, whose books on West Virginia law were the bible for state lawyers. The Cleckleys and Gottliebs got together many times. When the Department of Justice recommended him to President Carter for appointment to the Fourth Circuit, Frank didn’t want me to tell anyone that he believed his ancestors were slaves on the plantation of Rosalind Cleckley Carter’s ancestors – he wanted the job on his merits. Carter made a more political choice.
Though respected throughout West Virginia, Frank never felt safe traveling around the state to defend people. And Frank told me his brother had been shot in the back by a policeman in Cleveland. But Frank couldn’t protect his brother. For a Black man, a flashing light in his rear window raises the question whether he will survive the encounter or die on the street. You and I don’t feel that. But every hair triggering fear, every assumption of bad intentions, is stacked against a man with Black skin.
In dealing with prejudice, it doesn’t help to say that kind, capable, hard-working, people come in all colors. So, I talked about Frank, trying to make a dent.
I can talk about kind people, capable people, hard-working people. I don’t know what it takes to make a dent. Barbara Morris was a fighter when necessary. She ran the legal staff of the NAACP in New York City and threw me some of the toughest legal questions around. The organization was facing very serious challenges. It took the profession, not just me, another decade to figure out answers to what she was concerned about. She also gave me excellent advice about planning my legal career. But she had to fight just to get a decent apartment. She was Black and a woman. Not good enough for an apartment.
Marttie Thompson grew up in Mississippi, started law school but, lacking the money to finish, clerked for the bar, which meant he worked in a lawyer’s office and learned on the job. I often represented Marttie at meetings and saw the respect people had for him. But Marttie refused to join the Board of the bar association dominated by New York’s major firms because it was so recent when they finally admitted African-American lawyers as members. Later, Marttie became Regional Director of the federal office supervising many legal services programs. He tried his best to make his life matter.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor agreed to keynote a conference I was organizing here when John Baker became dean. Every Albany lawyer wanted to be at the dinner with her, overwhelming original plans. The Board wanted John to let everyone come and I wanted to keep it for the participants. John and I immediately did battle but emerged close friends. He introduced the first course at the law school on not-for-profit corporations – dealing with the world of museums, theatres, and organizations trying to provide for all the things government refuses to take care of. And he himself volunteered regularly. John tried to make his life matter.
All of them were kind, decent people. What else does it take before one’s life matters? Of course, Black Lives Matter. And because they are so often targeted by bigots, it’s important to say that.
Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.
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