On January 21, 2019, we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a leader and icon in the civil rights movement. Dr. King combatted racial inequality through non-violent resistance up until his assassination in 1968, but his words, his teachings, and his fight for equality continue to inspire and impact people all over the world.
Today on Lawyer 2 Lawyer, host, attorney Craig Williams is joined by attorney Cedric Merlin Powell, professor of law from the University of Louisville, Brandeis School of Law, attorney Justin Hansford, professor of law and executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University School of Law, and attorney and professor Theodore M. Shaw, director of the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina School of Law at Chapel Hill, as they spotlight Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights movement, his legacy, and his lasting impact.
Attorney Cedric Merlin Powell is professor of law from the University of Louisville, Brandeis School of Law.
Attorney Justin Hansford is professor of law and executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University School of Law.
Attorney and professor Theodore M. Shaw is director of the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina School of Law at Chapel Hill.
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The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Professor Theodore M. Shaw: But I think the full scope of King’s life’s work; his speeches, his sermons, his writings is much more profound and complicated than that one day, that one speech.
Professor Cedric Merlin Powell: He was always concerned with social movements and that certainly evolved over his lifetime, his short lifetime.
Professor Justin Hansford: We do have the legacy of Dr. King to look to for inspiration and I think we can use that for strength as we move forward to try to make a difference in this world.
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Well, this week in January of 2019 we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a leader and an icon in the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King combated racial inequality through nonviolent resistance up until his assassination in 1968, but his words, teachings, and his fight for equality continue to inspire and impact people all over the world.
Today on Lawyer 2 Lawyer we are going to spotlight Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his Civil Rights Movement, his legacy and the lasting impact.
To do that, we have got a great lineup of guests today. Here to discuss this topic is Attorney Cedric Merlin Powell. He is a Professor of Law from the University of Louisville, Brandeis School of Law.
Professor Powell has written over a very broad range of topics including affirmative action and a critical race theory, the First Amendment, hate speech, Fourteenth Amendment and structural inequality.
Well, welcome to the show Professor Powell.
Professor Cedric Merlin Powell: Thank you very much.
J. Craig Williams: And our next guest is attorney Justin Hansford, Professor of Law and Executive Director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University School of Law. Just this week, Justin delivered the keynote address at Rockville Maryland’s 47th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration.
Welcome to the show Professor Hansford.
Professor Justin Hansford: Thanks. Glad to be here.
J. Craig Williams: And finally, we have attorney and professor Theodore Shaw, Ted Shaw. He is the Director of the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina School of Law at Chapel Hill. Professor Shaw teaches Civil Procedure and Advanced Constitutional Law/Fourteenth Amendment. Professor Shaw served on the Obama transition team after the 2008 presidential election as the team leader for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.
And welcome to the show Professor Shaw.
Professor Theodore M. Shaw: Thank you. Glad to be with you.
J. Craig Williams: Well, since you are all three professors, I am going to dispense with titles and I am going to ask Cedric first, I think to just kind of give us a little bit of background and history of Martin Luther King, where he was as a young man and how his involvement started in the Civil Rights Movement.
Professor Cedric Merlin Powell: Well, I think his involvement was very important to him at a very young age. A lot of people forget his father, Martin Luther King, Sr., was very active in Civil Rights Movements in Alabama and Atlanta, Georgia of course, and I think Martin sort of modeled that type of behavior.
He was always concerned with social movements and that certainly evolved over his lifetime, his short lifetime, into areas like fighting for racial justice in all areas of society; civil rights, voting rights, public accommodations, even early versions of affirmative action. So I think that his involvement was directly related to his father, Martin Luther King, Sr.
J. Craig Williams: Well Ted, what was the spark that started the Civil Rights Movement?
Professor Theodore M. Shaw: Well, when you say the Civil Rights Movement, I would qualify it by saying the modern Civil Rights Movement because the Civil Rights Movement had deep and long roots. It was an ongoing struggle that was throughout the 20th century in play.
But I think what we are talking about is the Civil Rights Movement that we talk about that started in the 1950s, and in particular, we have to think about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, where a young Martin Luther King just so happened to have taken up the reins of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. And when he did that and found himself in Montgomery, there was a now-famous incident in which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, which didn’t happen serendipitously. She was an activist and there was a plan to challenge segregation in the buses. But once that boycott started, the community and particularly religious community in Montgomery chose Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead the effort.
And the reason they chose him frankly was because he was new there and he didn’t carry any baggage. He hadn’t made any enemies, there were no rivalries yet that he was engaged in. And so they chose him and it turned out that he was this eloquent, powerful speaker and a leader and he had a vision that came to be known as nonviolent resistance to racial and social injustice. And the Civil Rights Movement that we think of, the modern Civil Rights Movement was off and running as of that time.
But not long before that, there was the murder of a young black boy in Mississippi, as we know, Emmett Till. So there were — and there was Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 which also helped to spark the modern Civil Rights Movement. And so there were all kinds of things that were happening that came into confluence and started what became the great modern Civil Rights Movement as of the late 50s and on through the 60s.
J. Craig Williams: Well Justin, my father was a minister as well and he never made it from the pulpit to as an activist, what was it that got Martin Luther King out of the pulpit and into the public eye?
Professor Justin Hansford: Well, Dr. King’s vision of theology and his particular approach to faith was why, as Ted described, deeply rooted in a struggle that began even before enslavement for people of African descent, in the sense that even on the slave ships, before they even reached these shores, there was always resistance.
And he went to Morehouse University, a historically black college in Atlanta, and studied under Howard Thurman, who is someone who your listeners may not be familiar with, but I encourage them to learn more about him. He was a professor of theology, who was a great leader in his own right, and again, Dr. King came out of these historically black colleges such as Howard University, the one where I am, and to be a professor at, and these historically black colleges and universities housed some of the most talented black professors, scholars, people of the caliber of Howard Thurman and they produced people of the caliber of Martin Luther King, people of the caliber of the Thurgood Marshall, who graduated from the college, Charles Houston, who taught there.
So Dr. King’s approach to using his theology as a tool for liberation is something that was passed down to him through his teachers, his family, his parents and that was part of his community’s doctrine that they had used to resist oppression for hundreds of years.
And so it wasn’t something that came out of him just spontaneously. It was a deliberate approach that he then took almost as if it was a baton and kept on running the race for the next leg.
J. Craig Williams: What was it about his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech that became such a rallying cry as part of the Civil Rights Movement, how did that motivate people, where did it touch them, and how did it pull them out of just lack of involvement into further involvement in this movement, because certainly that in 1963 and the march on Washington DC was a major turning point?
Cedric, what do you think?
Professor Cedric Merlin Powell: Well, I think that this speech really captured America’s imagination. It sort of — and most people emphasize this during the Martin Luther King Day celebrations, ‘I Have a Dream’, you usually have a young child who can recite it word for word, and I think that’s very powerful, but I think what captures the imagination is Dr. King was really emphatically saying what democracy is.
I think of Dr. Martin Luther King as a radical democratic theorist. He was really talking about if democracy really means this, we need inclusion, we need people to be able to articulate their views, to be able to participate in all levels of American society.
So ‘I Have a Dream’ isn’t just some hopeful message, it is a demand that America lives up to its obligations and representations as a free democracy, a pluralistic society. And I think the speech captures our imagination, because not only was Dr. Martin Luther King underscoring and highlighting what America claims to be, but what it could be if everyone was included.
So it’s really an attack on everything that excludes people of color, the poor, people who are historically oppressed. He is arguing for an America that fulfills this destiny as a great functioning democracy.
Professor Theodore M. Shaw: I have a, what could be considered a little bit of pushback against the way people remember that speech, and it’s probably not a secret to anyone on the phone, but he is remembered for that speech, and that one speech, and it’s called the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. It could have been called the bounced check speech, if you read the whole speech. He was a critic of our country. Although he loved America, he loved it as many of us do critically, and he is remembered as this idle dreamer in some ways or this person who had this vision of racial integration when he really posed a radical challenge, not only to American racism, but to economic injustice in this country, to militarism, to the Vietnam War eventually, a great cost to himself.
That was only one of his speeches. It was a powerful and eloquent speech and that was an important gathering of people on that day, in August of 1963, but I think the full scope of King’s life’s work; his speeches, his sermons, his writings is much more profound and complicated than that one day, that one speech.
And he is remembered as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. He was one of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement; there were many others, and he is the one we remember perhaps best and most and I honor Dr. King, I love what he stood for, but I also think it’s important to put him in a broader and a deeper context.
J. Craig Williams: How do you take Martin Luther King’s legacy that he has established and apply it to the current day political climate and situation as it exists? I mean we are having more movements. I don’t think the Civil Rights Movement has stopped yet, it seems like it’s in full swing, on a very broad scale. A lot of people are reaching out. How do we take that legacy and what do we learn from it to draw into current situations?
Professor Justin Hansford: Yes. Well, I can say that even if we look at that particular march, we should remember that that was a march on Washington for jobs and freedom and Dr. King’s vision, again, I believe it’s too often distilled in the form of his dream and actually I believe his vision had much more to do with some radical economic ideas.
On that point about economic justice, for example, he believed that there should be guaranteed employment towards the end of his career and he is someone who was a fierce critic of economic inequality, which we know since his time has only skyrocketed. I think we already knew that 1% of the population has over 40% of America’s wealth in terms of the wealth gap.
When it comes to race, the average black family’s wealth is I believe around $1,700; the average white family’s wealth, $117,000, that’s the type of gap we have seen only become larger in the aftermath of the recession and then going on to most recently the tax breaks for the wealthy. So these are the types of questions on economic justice that would have been Dr. King’s focus I believe.
And of course on questions as controversial as immigration, I saw, I believe it was on The Late Show, Stephen Colbert, I think they even quoted Dr. King, who did weigh in on the question of walls and in that context it came out of his visit to East Berlin, and I think the quote was, “On either side of the wall are God’s children and no man-made barrier can ever obliterate that fact.”
His idea was to use the term of a world house to describe the global community, the way he wanted his idea of the Beloved Community to be global and inclusive.
And so these ideas are so relevant to what we face today and these are questions in addition to of course the core racial contradiction that America faces and how it deals with its people of color. These are the types of questions that he would be animated by today and the problems have yet to find solutions.
And so I believe that for most of us if we really are interested in honoring Dr. King’s legacy, the way to do that wouldn’t be to quote ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, the way to do it would be to get to work on those issues that he would be passionate about and try our best to make the contribution that will be lasting and positive.
J. Craig Williams: Thank you. Well, gentlemen, we need to take a break before we move on to our next segment. We will hear a message from our sponsor. We will be right back.
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J. Craig Williams: And welcome back to Lawyer 2 Lawyer. I am Craig Williams, and we are joined today by attorney Cedric Merlin Powell. He is the Professor of Law from the University of Louisville, Brandeis School of Law, attorney Justin Hansford. He is a Professor of Law and Executive Director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University School of Law. And attorney and professor Ted Shaw. He is the Director of the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina School of Law at Chapel Hill.
And we have been talking about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I guess it’s a Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and how he has inspired all individuals in the Civil Rights Movement, but I would kind of like to turn to you individually and I am kind of figuring that one of you has some children. How has Dr. King inspired you individually and what have you taught your children or others around you about Dr. King? How do you communicate his legacy to others?
Justin, let’s turn to you first.
Professor Justin Hansford: Sure. So I can say individually Dr. King has inspired me through his courage, and what I mean by that, not only that he faced a number of physical threats in his career from white supremacists, from people who were hecklers at his protests, but also from a moral perspective, he wasn’t afraid to take controversial stance, such as his stand on the Vietnam War, that were unpopular, but he still did what he believed was right.
And when I said I take inspiration from that, luckily I haven’t had to face the trials that he has, but I have been involved in protests in Ferguson with Black Lives Matter and we face hecklers, sometimes they do it online through tweets, as trolls, sometimes it’s on the streets of the protest. My students have faced blowbacks from their involvement in some of these protests marches, but we do — I do and I know my students do also take great courage from knowing that people like Dr. King faced very similar types of hostility and history vindicated him, and so you hope that history will vindicate you as well and you don’t stop.
For Dr. King, the charge was don’t stop marching; maybe for us the charge is don’t stop tweeting, or don’t — definitely don’t stop organizing, because whether the hate speech comes in the form of people in your face on the street or people in your psychological space online, it is still a stressor and a cause for fear when people threaten you, threaten your family or threaten your livelihood and we do continue to face that.
So that’s what I have taken the most inspiration from in terms of his physical courage and in terms of his moral courage. I strive to be more outspoken on questions of injustice, just as you mentioned, on Martin Luther King Day, I had the privilege of being able to deliver an address to a few hundred people and I had to be honest. I had to say that in the City of Rockville I spoke, I had to say that they had a while to go to meet Dr. King’s high standards, because they had not yet declared themselves a sanctuary city and I believe that’s what Dr. King would have wanted. They had yet to fully move as fast as I would have liked to see them move on integrating the public school system in terms of hiring more teachers of color.
So those types of stances, where they will be somewhat controversial. I believe that if we are going to fully honor the legacy of people like Dr. King, and I always mention Charles Houston, because he in many ways was the founder of the law school where I teach, if you are going to honor those legacies, we have to be willing to follow in the footsteps of these people who faced similar and even greater challenges and were able to meet them.
So that’s why I have taken some measure of inspiration from Dr. King’s legacy as well.
J. Craig Williams: Cedric.
Professor Cedric Merlin Powell: Well, I have two children; I have a 14-year-old and a 21-year-old and I have always tried to lead by example and show them that you have to be actively engaged. I think that Dr. King was the preeminent public citizen of our time, meaning that he was actively engaged in critically confronting issues that impact what democracy is.
And I keep returning to this in the democracy, but I think it’s important for young children and young adults to be fully aware that in order for this to be fully functional as a democracy, all of us have to be involved. That’s why I am particularly alarmed about the moves against voting rights under this illusory fraud investigation or neutral requirements like formalistic IDs and those type of things. But I point that out merely to say that whenever I can I point out to my children how structural inequality works, how people are excluded and how you have to sort of stand up and make a difference, and you do that by leading by example.
I want to return to one thing that — a couple of things that Justin and Ted sort of underscored and I think this is important for all of our listeners that we have sort of frozen Dr. King into time. I think all of us recognize that with the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, but the things that he did and wrote about; there is a marvelous compendium of his writings called A Testament of Hope, which really talks about everything that he wrote during his all too brief career. It was edited by James Washington, but one of the two books that he did later on in his life was ‘Why We Can’t Wait’ and ‘Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?’
You asked earlier what Dr. King would be involved in, he would be 90 years old, if he had been blessed for a great and long life, and he did tremendous things in a short period of time. But Ted talked about materialism and Dr. King always critiqued what he called the great triplets of racism, materialism and militarism. So I think he would be actively involved in calling for the guaranteed income that Justin was talking about. He would try to wipe out vestiges of racism, not only in the United States, but globally, because he once said racism is no mere American phenomenon. He would talk about a peace race rather than an arms race and he would talk about fully engaging people in what we call this democracy. And he would really be concerned about the disproportionate impact on communities of color.
And I think my children see all of these things, because I point them out continually and they are involved and engaged. My son is studying abroad in Amman, Jordan, and he is very concerned about the Carceral State of course, he is concerned about the Israeli-Palestine issues, he is concerned about issues here on the ground with Black Lives Matter. And I think that’s a result of his mother and I and our daughter sort of being actively involved and paying attention to what’s happening around us because it impacts us all.
J. Craig Williams: Well Ted, where do you think we can go and honor Dr. King’s legacy? What is it that we need as a society to do well?
Professor Theodore M. Shaw: Well, these days I think where we find ourselves ironically after the election twice of the first African-American President, we find ourselves in a place where racism is right out front, and I don’t know if anybody is now talking about it, as they were a few years ago, mistakenly I think, the notion that we have reached some kind of Nirvana, color blindness, a race blind society; clearly we haven’t.
And we are called upon to go back to the streets and to march, but also to go back to the courtrooms, to go back to the halls of power, whether we are talking about Congress or whether we are talking about state and local legislatures, we are called upon to continue the struggle that we have been engaged in for so long.
It’s very clear these days that our country is on very thin ice. That we are in trouble with respect to the values that we say we believe in, with respect to the notion of a society that is still marching toward racial and economic justice and gender justice, etc. Sometimes we don’t recognize our country now. I think if Dr. King would have come back today, he would have a hard time recognizing where we are. Yes, he would have been surprised that we elected an African-American President twice, but I think he would also be very disturbed about where we have gone after that.
You asked a question about our children and I have two generations of children and the Martin Luther King story, the Civil Rights story is the air they breathe. We have taught it to them in every way possible. We take our children to marches. They have demonstrated. But they also see in our household the books, the recordings. And I don’t mean to be immodest, but I was blessed to come to know the King family, in particular I was very dear friends with Yolanda King, Yoki King, who sadly died some years ago of heart disease, as her father would likely have died of; he wouldn’t have been 90 years old. When he was autopsied the doctors said that he had the heart of a man twice his age. But I was blessed to come to know that family, including Coretta King, and the other children in the King family.
And I think often the burdens that they continue to carry because of who and what their father was, but I also am terribly aware of the necessity for all of us to carry our parts of that burden, to pass the torch, to pass the baton in these days.
So I think about Dr. King often, but I think about all the others who were very much engaged in the Civil Rights Movement, whether we are talking about Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer and the other conveners of the march on Washington, whomever you want; John Lewis is still with us, but we have to think about the others who convened that now-famous march and then we have to take up the torch that they passed to us.
J. Craig Williams: Well, as part of taking up that torch we have just about reached the end of our program and I would like to give the opportunity to our three guests to share their final thoughts, and in particular, I would like you to reach back into your knowledge of Dr. King and the things that he said and give our listeners a message that you think he would deliver today to kind of inspire us and move us forward. We have come a ways, but we have a very long way to go.
So Justin, I would like to turn to you first and invite you to kind of let us know where we are going.
Professor Justin Hansford: All right. Well, it’s been wonderful talking to you all this afternoon. I can say that Dr. King and his legacy always inspires me. It’s about this time of the year when I have made my New Year’s resolutions about three weeks in, I have often failed at a number of them, and I need more inspiration, and it’s always perfect timing to be able to talk about Dr. King.
He was part of the Black Prophetic Tradition. Cornel West once said, he had fire in his bones, and love in his heart, light in his mind and courage in his soul, and for me, I took those images and I took them to heart and I have always striven to sort of try to figure out what it would be like to manifest that type of energy and commitment and courage in my own life.
And like I said earlier, I think that we are at a particular time where because we have not progressed in a straight line on questions of Civil Rights in Critical Race Theory, we use this terminology called reform and retrenchment, and what that means is after a stride forward, we often have a stride backward; after emancipation and reconstruction we had Jim Crow, after segregation ended we had mass incarceration, after Barack Obama, now we have a Donald Trump. And so you see that this cycle, unfortunately, has continued throughout history.
And so the good news here is that we have a major role to play and our opportunity to have the baton passed to us, to work on these issues that are familiar, but in unfamiliar circumstances; technology has changed, the global dynamics, our dynamics are changing, but again, the issues are the same, and I think as we said earlier, economic justice, racial justice, the fight against militarism, these fights are still ongoing, and the manifestations show their face every day on the news, and that even to this very moment we have people suffering in a government shutdown, to this very moment we have got people worried about how they are going to make ends meet at the end of the month.
So we have so much to fight about, it’s almost overwhelming, but I just would leave with a note that we shouldn’t be overwhelmed, because we do have the legacy of Dr. King to look to for inspiration and I think we can use that for strength as we move forward to try to make a difference in this world.
J. Craig Williams: And Justin, how can our listeners reach out to you?
Professor Justin Hansford: My contact information, you can reach me on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook. My twitter handle is @Blackstarjus, and that’s my same handle on Instagram, and you can reach me on social media, and of course I am also Howard University’s Thurgood Marshall Center, and you can just google us and find us online. There have no website yet, but that’s what’s coming shortly. But feel free to reach out at any time.
Professor Cedric Merlin Powell: Well, I would say we are in trying and difficult times and as Justin pointed out, we are really in the third reconstruction. Dr. King 50 years ago said, “Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash”, so he was even, as far as the Civil Rights Movement had come at that particular point in time with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act, which Dr. King didn’t live to see, in 1968. Even with that much progress he knew that retrogression and retrenchment was a part of structural inequality.
But I think we have to be optimistic. As all of us have said, we have to use struggle to light the way. Dr. King’s legacy I think is especially bright in these dark times. He even said once that darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. So I think his message really resonates, because we have to embrace that message and really have true hope, and that means the determination to fight and advocate and be involved in movements to try and provide a better tomorrow, and that’s what we have to fight for, a united political community.
And it’s going to take a while because of all of these efforts and barriers that have been put up in our way, but if America is what it truly says it is, we will have to make that dream a reality, not only a reality, but an inclusive reality where substantive equality really means something.
I am Cedric Merlin Powell and I could be reached at the University of Louisville, Brandeis School of Law, and my email is [email protected].
Professor Theodore M. Shaw: Well, I am so glad to have been on part of this conversation with my colleagues. They inspire me and encourage me with the things that they are saying.
I think we have to remember Martin Luther King’s commitment to something that’s sorely lacking in our country these days, and that’s civil discourse. He engaged in civil discourse which was consistent with his message of nonviolent resistance, but also his message of love, and I don’t mean a kind of blind love, he talked about a special kind of love that was not about a man and a woman, but rather about how we treat each other as human beings.
But also the economic justice imperative, as we have talked about is more important than ever. The disparities are greater than ever and we have got to continue that fight and we have got to save our democracy which has been imperiled, not only by the attempts to keep people from participating in democracy, the right to vote, but also very much a failure of people at the top of government now. The President of the United States, I think he has forfeited that title in some ways, but nonetheless, that’s the office he occupies. But he has completely abandoned the fundamental precepts of democracy.
I want to lift up Reverend Bobby’s name though, because he is doing and continuing the work of Martin Luther King in particular and I think we all ought to support him and join his work, but take it on as our own.
J. Craig Williams: Great. And how can our listeners reach out and find you on the Internet?
Professor Theodore M. Shaw: Well, I am at the University of North Carolina School of Law and so you can go on the website and you can find me, Theodore M. Shaw, and I am also the Director of the Center for Civil Rights. I am easy to find on the Internet, but also make sure that you kick me in the pants if need be to get my attention because I get a lot of emails.
J. Craig Williams: Yes sir. Well, thank you. Thank you very much gentlemen for participating on our show today.
That brings us to the end of our show. If you have liked what you heard today, please rate us in Apple Podcasts. You can also visit us at legaltalknetwork.com, where you can leave a comment on today’s show and sign up for our newsletter.
I am Craig Williams. Thanks for listening. Join us next time for another great legal topic. When you want legal, think Lawyer 2 Lawyer.
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