The University Record, April 18, 1994

Economics will play large part in future of civil rights, panelists say

By Toni Shears
Law School Editor

Economic issues should be the focus of the civil rights movement today, according to panelists at the Black Law Students Alliance’s (BLSA) fifth annual symposium held at the Law School April 9.

The focus of the symposium—“Civil Rights in the 1990s: Where Are We? Where Should We Go?”—was a panel discussion addressing the question “Is civil rights the proper focus for today’s African American?”

The civil rights movement must move on, the four panelists said, to address a greater range of issues, perhaps with methods that go beyond traditional litigation. “I don’t think the civil rights movement is a movement any longer. That ended in the late 1960s, because the goals set out were by and large achieved through laws that made most forms of discrimination illegal,” said Theodore Shaw, assistant professor at the Law School, now on leave to serve as associate director-counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

While civil rights organizations still receive more traditional discrimination complaints than they can handle, the key issues for the rest of this century and the next are the more subtle, intractable problems caused by economic effects of racism.

“I think we can’t continue to live in a country divided not only by Black and white but by have and have not. That gap is wider than ever before,” Shaw said. If it’s not halted, that growing disparity will rend the social fabric, he added.

“The law won’t play much of a role in these economic differences; they’ll have to be addressed politically. As future lawyers,” Shaw told students in the audience, “you have to look beyond the law. It’s not what you’ll do in the courtroom; it will be the leadership you take in the community that makes a difference. I don’t care if you call it civil rights or call it something else. The issues we’re facing now are just as pressing, and they require action from people like you.”

Action was Jacqueline Berrien’s theme, too. The voting rights litigator with the Lawyer’s Commission for Civil Rights Under Law said she often wondered whether her traditional civil rights role was the best way to serve African Americans. Last summer, it was a personal tragedy that made her question her actions.

While winding up a voting rights case in one of the poorest parishes of Louisiana, she heard that the 17-year-old son of a friend had been shot to death outside his home in Brooklyn. “I had to ask myself, if this is going on where I live, what am I doing in Louisiana fighting for voting rights?” She decided it was not an either/or choice of whether it is civil rights litigation or social action that benefits African Americans more directly.

“I see by the calls for assistance to our organization that there is plenty of need for litigation, but that’s clearly not the end of the agenda. The civil rights movement must become a movement in a different sense—not static, but aware of emerging issues and able to listen and shift to meet new needs that arise,” Berrien said.

U.S. Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee said that he and other African American members of Congress fight for civil rights every day. Their method is legislation that attempts to correct failed policies that have impoverished millions.

Ron Daniels, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, made the strongest claim for a new plank in the civil rights platform: reparations for African Americans economically victimized by discrimination.

“I am not at all persuaded that we will be able to shift our position in society on our own, so I’m proposing that our new economic agenda must include reparations,” he said.

The economic solutions panelists called for are closely linked to the problems of urban communities, which were addressed in another panel discussion.

On hand to suggest strategies to assist urban communities were: Sharon McPhail, division chief of screening and district courts for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office and a 1993 Detroit mayorial candidate; Jacqueline Joiner Cissell, director of social and cultural studies at the Indiana Family Institute; and Esmerelda Simmons, head of the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York.

Another panel on the efficacy of the Voting Rights Act included Shaw; Pamela Karlan, law professor, University of Virginia School of Law; Alan Keys, author of Masters of the Dream: The Strength and Betrayal of Black America; and Carol Swain, assistant professor, Princeton University School of Public Policy.

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters of California gave the keynote address at BLSA’s annual Butch Carpenter Scholarship Banquet.