“Echoes of Birmingham” Is Theme for Law School Convocation

January 21, 2016

Race, police-community trust, and the criminal justice system were on the minds of speakers at “Echoes of Birmingham: Dr. King’s Legacy in Today’s Minnesota,” a Jan. 19 event sponsored by the Law School Diversity Committee.

Professor Mark Kappelhoff, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, began the discussion of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by pointing to its most famous passage: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

While that sentence underlines King’s rationale for protesting inequality and segregation in Alabama, Kappelhoff said the next two sentences offer particular poignancy today. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” King wrote. “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

Police encounters resulting in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Laquan McDonald in Chicago, and Jamar Clark in Minneapolis, among others, have launched an important conversation about race, policing, and community trust across the country. “This conversation, and the events that launched this conversation, impacts all of us. People are paying attention now like never before,” Kappelhoff said.

Joining Kappelhoff were Alan Page (’78), a former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice, and Tracie Keesee, project director of the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. Dean David Wippman moderated the discussion.

“There’s a space of exhaustion that King points to,” Keesee said, and “a historical narrative and trauma that goes along with it.” In the letter, King reminds readers that African-Americans have suffered for centuries at the hands of “vicious mobs” who lynch and drown them and “policemen who curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters.”

Page, who grew up in a black neighborhood in Canton, Ohio, in the 1950s, remembers a “great deal of distrust in law enforcement.” That uneasiness between blacks and police continues today, which led Keesee to advocate for police to examine not just explicit bias but also implicit bias. “That’s a space that’s new for law enforcement,” she said.

Audience members and panelists also spoke about the implications of police body cameras, religious bias against Muslims, building police-community trust, and the importance of addressing implicit bias in our society. As the discussion swirled, Page urged people to not focus on a single solution. “We need a comprehensive approach,” he said. “We can’t just identify one piece of the problem and complain about it and do nothing more.”

“Echoes of Birmingham” was the first in a series of events that will be sponsored by the Law School Diversity Committee and others at the Law School over the coming semester. A calendar is available at https://www.law.umn.edu/admissions/equity-diversity.

Left to right: Tracie Keesee, Professor Mark Kappelhoff, Justice Alan Page ('78) and Dean David Wippman
Left to right: Tracie Keesee, Professor Mark Kappelhoff, Justice Alan Page ('78) and Dean David Wippman

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