Iconic The Queer Black lawyer, organizer, priest, and civil rights icon you’ve never heard of
On April 17, 1943, three African-American students from Howard University, a historically black college, entered the Little Palace Cafeteria in Washington, DC. Despite being denied service, the students remained, reading from their schoolbooks. Three more Howard students then entered the restaurant, were denied service, refused to leave, and began reading as well. Three more students, then three more students — bringing the total to twelve — repeated the process, while seven additional students formed a picket outside the restaurant with signs like “We Die Together — Why Can’t We Eat Together?” Nearly two decades before the sit-ins of the 1960s, in the throes of World War II, the students were launching a full-frontal attack on Jim Crow
As a planner and participant in the protest, Pauli Murray brought to bear her experience organizing with left-wing groups like the Socialist Party–affiliated Workers Defense League, sharing her insights with students (one of whom would go on to become a leading organizer with the Congress of Racial Equality, which helped organize the 1963 March on Washington). For Murray — a black lesbian woman — it was an early attempt in a lifetime of efforts to challenge discrimination and topple the brutal hierarchies of US society.
Born in 1910 and raised in the Jim Crow South, Murray accomplished an impressive series of “firsts” before her death in 1985. She became the first black deputy attorney general in California in 1946, the first African American to receive a law doctorate from Yale Law School in 1965, the first professor to teach African-American and women’s studies courses at Brandeis University in 1968, and the first African-American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1977.
Murray managed these feats in spite of — or, perhaps, because of — the challenges she faced. She often intentionally set goals barred by racist and sexist prejudice, intertwining her professional career with her lifelong activism. Along the way, she elevated women among the male-dominated Civil Rights Movement and black women among the largely white feminist movement. Sadly, due to the overwhelming homophobia she faced throughout her life, she struggled to openly embrace her sexuality and push for gay rights, which she quietly folded into the broader category of human rights.
Read the story on Jacobin
Say it Louder A Black woman should be our next solicitor general
An influential progressive judicial group is asking President-elect Joe Biden to select a Black woman to be the administration’s top lawyer at the Supreme Court — and imploring him not to pick several well-known Democratic attorneys who frequently argue before the court.
The move by the group, Demand Justice, to weigh in on Biden's choice for solicitor general — the fourth-highest-ranking post in the Justice Department — offers a preview of how it might try to exert influence in the next administration after years of campaigning against President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees.
In a letter to Biden's transition team this week shared with POLITICO, Demand Justice argued the solicitor general appointment should serve as a kind of down payment on Biden’s pledge to nominate the first Black woman to the Supreme Court. Half a dozen other groups — including the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation — also signed onto the letter.
“Given the overwhelmingly white and male tilt of the group of lawyers who regularly argue before the Supreme Court, it would send an important message about the need for a more diverse group of voices to be heard at the nation’s highest Court,” the groups wrote in the letter.
Biden has faced criticism from Democratic lawmakers over the past week for not choosing more Black and Hispanic candidates for top jobs. While Biden has tapped several people of color for jobs such as ambassador to the United Nations, Homeland Security secretary and OMB director, most of his core White House team is white.
Read the story on Politico
More of This On his first day as DA, George Gascon eliminates bail in Los Angeles
George Gascón embarked Monday on a plan to reimagine criminal prosecutions in Los Angeles County, announcing sweeping policy changes he’ll make as district attorney that include an end to cash bail, a ban on prosecutors seeking enhanced prison sentences and showing leniency to many low-level offenders.
The dramatic reversals of deeply ingrained, traditional law enforcement strategies in the nation’s largest district attorney’s office, also will include a review of thousands of old cases to determine whether lighter sentences or prisoner releases should be sought, Gascón said in a speech during his swearing-in ceremony.
“I recognize for many this is a new path … whether you are a protester, a police officer or a prosecutor, I ask you to walk with me. I ask you to join me on this journey,” he said. “We can break the multigenerational cycles of violence, trauma and arrest and recidivism that has led America to incarcerate more people than any other nation.”
Read the story on LA Times
Speaking Of… More and more prosecutors want to help free incarcerated people
When Calvin McNeill was 16, he and a group of friends in Baltimore decided to rob a neighborhood dice game. Things got chaotic, and McNeill shot and killed a man. It was 1981. The teen was sentenced to life in prison.
Over the next 39 years, McNeill became a model inmate and was approved for parole three times, but each time the Maryland governor vetoed his release. So Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby joined a defense motion to reconsider his sentence last summer. A judge granted it, and McNeill was freed in July this year.
Since his release, “everybody that I have come across has opened up their arms to me,” McNeill said, “and said, ‘We’re glad to see you home. And we understand that you were a baby when you got locked up.’”
On Monday, Mosby announced the launch of a sentencing review unit in Baltimore to address both mass incarceration and racial inequities in the justice system. Of the 2,500 people serving life sentences in Maryland, 79 percent are Black, Mosby said, though African Americans make up only 30 percent of the state population. In Baltimore, of the 815 prisoners sentenced to life, 94 percent are Black.
Also Monday, the newly elected district attorney of Los Angeles, George Gascón, announced at his swearing-in that he, too, is launching a sentencing review unit. Gascón said he conservatively estimates that 20,000 prisoners will immediately qualify for resentencing. He said he believes some were given drastically long sentences, others are older and unlikely to reoffend, and others should be released because of covid-19 concerns.
“The role of a prosecutor is not only one of seeking justice,” Gascón said in an interview, “but also of correcting injustice . . . This is going to be the first time in the nation where there will be this massive effort coming from the largest prosecution offices in the country.”
Read the interview on Washington Post
Interview of the Week “We can’t engage in the intellectual justification of discrimination”
Ben Crump, 51, is a civil rights lawyer. He has represented the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown and other victims of police violence whose killings inspired the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for police reform.
You’ve taken on a number of a high-profile cases of violence against people of color, usually associated with law enforcement — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin — and surely have to decline many more. How do you choose which cases you take on?
I once read that Justice Thurgood Marshall — he’s my North Star, my personal hero — would not take cases that just affected an individual or a family when he was the general counsel for the NAACP. He would take on cases that have a larger impact on the greater society. Cases that shocked his conscience. And I am the same way. Right now, the case has to shock my conscience and have a large society impact — because there are so many of them. Unfortunately, we get a voluminous amount of calls on a regular basis. And the mission is to try to prevent these hashtags, these names that we have all come to know as battle cries for Black Lives Matter.
You’ve won many of those cases in civil court, but the officers or other perpetrators aren’t convicted. Does that feel like failure? Or what is your measure for success, for justice?
Justice will be them not being killed in the first place. So all we can try to get is some degree of accountability from the system or the government. We have to remember that, as much as I have, I guess, become popular and gotten a lot of notoriety, the Constitution is very clear that the only people who can arrest people and charge them and put them in prison are the elected government officials. And so the failure to [convict] these police officers who unjustifiably and unnecessarily kill Black and Brown people, and marginalized people, is on the prosecutors, who have historically never wanted to convict police officers for killing our people.
For 401 years, we have been dealing with systemic racism and oppression. And for most of those years, save the last 30, the police killed Black people, and Black people didn’t recover anything in the civil court or get criminal justice in the criminal court. We have, I think, changed the landscape of these extrajudicial killings and them being absolved of any accountability whatsoever. So I think we’re making tremendous progress. Do we have a long way to go? Absolutely. But we’ve come so much further than we were, say, 15, 20 years ago.
When you represent marginalized people in America, especially people of color, you have to fight in two courts. First, you have to fight in the court of public opinion. And then, if you win there, you might — no guarantee — you might get to fight in the court of law. You have to do everything in your power, use all your influence, all your resources, everything, to say to America: “Black lives matter. And this Black life mattered.” Whether it’s Breonna Taylor, whether it’s Ahmaud Arbery, whether it’s 12-year-old Tamir Rice, whether it’s Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Terence Crutcher, Josef Richardson, Pam Turner, Stephon Clark, you’re trying to say: This Black life matters.
Read the interview on Washington Post
Judicial Externship Program for Latinx People
The program was started to address the critical need of increasing the number of Latino/as exposed to federal practice, but importantly to provide Latino/a students an opportunity that many would not otherwise have in the competitive environment of federal judicial externships.
Learn more here
ChangeLawyers is hiring
We're looking for our next Development Associate! Apply here
Racial Economic Justice Program Director
Legal Aid at Work seeks a Racial Economic Justice Program Director who will lead our organization in the fight to achieve racial justice through the vigorous advancement and enforcement of workplace civil rights and employment laws. Apply here
Calling all BIPOC judges: can you open the door to others?
The Judicial Mentor Program is designed to identity, encourage and provide mentors for all individuals considering a judicial career. Learn more here
Do you want to serve in the Biden-Harris Administration?
Submit your name to the talent database and help fill over 4000 upcoming appointments.