Justice Alan Page ’78 Headlines Fifth Annual MLK Convocation
Retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page ’78 has been fighting the good fight for decades, mostly on behalf of equality in race and education—and all the intertwined areas those topics touch. At 74, he shows little sign of slowing down.
At the Law School’s fifth annual MLK Convocation yesterday, Page joined Navin Ramalingam, 2L, for an hourlong conversation on those topics commemorating the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The program, titled “Shared Stakes Across Neighborly Divides,” drew about 200 students, faculty, staff and other onlookers to Mondale Hall.
The overriding theme was how we can put King’s ideas into practice in a world that at times seems even more divided and angry than it was during his time.
“We’re all in this together,” said Page. “We all see the world differently, but the reality is that we have to share this earth.”
Page reiterated how formative the cataclysmic racial and civil rights-related developments of his youth were. Brown v. Board of Education, the murder of Emmitt Till, and the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church all had a profound effect on Page as he was growing up in Canton, Ohio. These events were instrumental in steering him toward the law after he finished his football career.
Asked by Ramalingam about why the United States has never had a comprehensive national reckoning about native genocide, slavery, and similarly corrosive chapters of its past, Page pointed to the tendency of our society to celebrate progress made in racial relations without fully acknowledging past atrocities.
“We say we want to live in a color-blind society, but that doesn’t mean being blind to racial bias,” Page said. “We see an overtly racist act, and some of us are able to say, ‘That didn’t happen,’” he continued. “Our leadership does that, which makes it easy for other people to take license to do likewise.”
Much of the conversation about King was about the curious mixture of perspectives he still inspires 52 years after his death: Some choose to see the benign, “convenient” King who espoused brotherhood, while others see the “dangerous” King who pushed for protest.
“They demonized his work,” said Page. “We have to look at the whole of his work when we praise what he did. The issues he talked about are still here today.”
Of course, having faith in the efficacy of King’s message is not easy in 2020, Page was quick to point out.
“We have leadership spewing hatred, promoting white supremacy, and completely working against Dr. King’s philosophies,” he said. “It’s discouraging, but I believe each of us can make change and give substance not just to his words, but also his work.”
Page’s current passion project is a push—along with Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari—for an amendment to the state constitution that would give every child in Minnesota an equal right to quality education. The current section of state law, more than 160 years old, guarantees students access only to an “adequate” educational system.
“It’s about attacking the gap between middle class/wealthy students and poor students,” Page said. “It’s unconscionable that we seem willing to accept that gap.”
The amendment would shift the focus of the state’s education programs to children and to outcomes, and would hold the state accountable for those outcomes, Page said.
—Dan Heilman is a freelance writer living in St. Paul.