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cleaverseminar.jpgSocial Activists Kathleen Cleaver and Tawana Petty Kick Off Weeklong MLaw Seminar on Race, Law, and Citizenship


By Jordan Poll 
November 4, 2016

The question of whether we, as a nation, have reached an era of "post racial America" has been debated for decades. The answer to such a question lies not only in an ever-evolving conversation but also by exploring the definition of racism and the formation of American jurisprudence.

In an effort to further examine the state of racial justice in the United States, a group of MLaw students invited intellectuals and leaders of social change to partake in a weeklong Seminar on Race, Law, and Citizenship, which took place the week of October 5. "Law Students feel a substantive want for strong black voices in the legal academy, especially with regard to discussions of the role of African-American dissent on the formation of modern American jurisprudence," said 2L Lakshmi Gopal, co-organizer of the student-sponsored series. "So my fellow co-organizers—Calyssa Lawyer and Morgan Brown—and I decided to reach out to inspiring activists and create our own program that we hope, once it is made available online, will help law students across the country understand the formative role of Black social movements in shaping the deepest theoretical underpinnings of American law." The seminar opened with public forum featuring Professor Kathleen Neal Cleaver and digital justice activist Tawana Petty as they engaged students in dynamic conversation connecting law and citizenship to racial justice, activism, and politics.

Cleaver, a senior lecturer and research fellow at Emory University Law School, has spent her life participating in the human rights struggle. "My parents were activists before I was born so I was kind of born into it," said Cleaver. "In high school, I observed a protest in Albany, Georgia, where girls were in the back of a police paddy wagon going off to jail. I said, 'I want to be with them. I want to do what they do.'" Cleaver went on to become the first communications secretary of the Black Panther Party. After receiving a JD from Yale, she entered private practice, and later clerked for the late Judge A. Leon Higginbotham of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. "I was very fortunate in my ability to continue my activism after law school because of that clerkship," said Cleaver.

Tawana "Honeycomb" Petty is a student of Cleaver's legacy. She is an anti-racist social justice organizer, youth advocate, poet, and author. She was born and raised in Detroit and is intricately involved in water rights, digital justice and visionary organizing work there. "My activism is born out of struggle," said Petty. "When you grow up in Detroit, often times you are groomed to get out and become something better. As if being in Detroit cannot be synonymous with being a better human being." In addition to her social justice work and community organizing, Petty performs and speaks across the globe.

Much of the forum focused on a discussion of racism and its transformation into what is seen flooding the media today. Petty illustrated the recent shift with a juxtaposition of generations. "There was a hush over the discussion around race for a couple of decades," said Petty, recalling her childhood. "Now it looks like there is this new resurgence of racism when essentially it never ended." She noted that in addition to possessing incredible accessibility to technology perfect for communicating and spreading awareness on a large scale, the upcoming generation contains young folks who are willing and brave enough to challenge the social norm.

Cleaver described racism as an ever-evolving concept with an equally fluctuating definition, its face and form taking new and unexpected shapes with time and awareness. Because of which, America's collective consciousness struggles to keep up. "It is a comprehension problem, a consciousness problem, which is one of the things that a lot of activist groups were working to change in the late 60s," said Cleaver.

Cleaver and Petty acknowledged that while the function of activism remains consistent over time, effective activism must involve a high degree of strategy and flexibility in order to counter the state of society. "You need to study. You need to examine the situation and figure out what the problem is," Cleaver told the students. "You're younger and you have so many opportunities. Take those opportunities. Take that intelligence and devise strategies for resisting and eliminating some of the problems." Petty recommended that students of activism should study the works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in order to open the gateway to a new kind of political reform that brings the two ideologies together. She implored the audience to not get stuck in the binary of Malcolm vs. Martin, and encouraged students to study Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a bit more, particularly his speech, A Time to Break Silence. "It's not enough to rise up against the things you disparage; you have to also be thinking about what's your goal? What do you want to create? What's the world you want to live in?" said Petty.

As leaders of movements and spearheads of social change, both Petty and Cleaver explained that the change they fight for is not static. Progress is not permanent. In fact, Cleaver described it as cyclical. "It's a gradual, systemic process of change," she said. "You can be very involved in a movement and bring about great change—and guess what? People who didn't like that change will work just as hard to undo what you did as you get to do it. Then you have to turn around and do it again, which is kind of where your generation is."

This event was organized by the Jane Cleo Marshall Lucas Committee for Jurisprudence and Activism. Jane Cleo Marshall Lucas, '44, was the first female African-American graduate of the Law School. In 1946, she became the first African-American woman to pass the Maryland bar and was invited to join the Howard University law faculty becoming the first woman to teach full-time on the law faculty. She later worked for the Women's Division of the Labor Department, the Civil Rights Commission, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington, D.C.

Sponsors include Black Law Students Association at the University of Michigan Law School, the National Lawyers Guild at the University of Michigan Law School, the American Constitution Society at the University of Michigan Law School, and the American Civil Liberties Union at the University of Michigan Law School, the Afro-American and African Studies Department, the Michigan Journal of Race & Law, the Racial Justice Coalition at the University of Michigan Law School, and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

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