WMU-Cooley Law School discusses present versus past on MLK Day


Photo 1: A group of WMU-Cooley Law School  students, professors, and the mother (middle row, far right) and children (front row) of Assistant Dean Tracey Brame (second from right in middle row) attended a Martin Luther King Day discussion designed to compare present with the days when Dr. King was alive.A few of those participating had already had to leave.

Photo 2: Tracey Brame set the framework for the discussion as she prepared to play both a podcast and a couple of clips from the film Selma, as Prof. Michael Molitor looked on.


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Despite the fact that Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School was not in session on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day last Monday, a number of students and professors came to the Grand Rapids campus for a discussion comparing the current status of African-Americans, and racism, with that of the past.

Joining them were at least one member of the general public, and the mother and children of Assistant Dean and Associate Professor Tracey Brame, who led the discussion.

The wide variety of perspectives made for an interesting and authentic dialogue.

The session celebrated not only the national holiday of MLK Day, but also Equal Access to Justice Day, as initiated by WMU-Cooley President and Dean Don LeDuc, which encourages those associated with the law school to study, reflect and attend programs on “the role of law and lawyers in protecting the right of everyone and assuring equal access to justice.”

The Black Law Students Association (BLSA), of which Brame is the advisor, sponsored the event.

Brame started out by playing a podcast in which a reporter from a local National Public Radio station interviews the new mayor of Richmond, Va., Levar Stoney.

Richmond has a population of about 200,000 and approximately one quarter of those people live in poverty. Stoney is the youngest mayor ever to serve Richmond, and Brame noted that the NPR headline on the story focused on that fact.

However, he is also African-American, which the interviewer asks him about. He responded,   “During the campaign, someone asked me if my campaign was about race. And I told them I never thought so. I think my generation, millennials, we don’t see race the same way [as] preceding generations before us, baby boomers and others. We see this as - this is something we have to fight together. And so yes, we have - we have a horrible history, you can say. And you look at our segregated schools or our concentrated poverty - those, to me, are relics of that Confederate culture from years and years ago. That's what we want to work on together as one Richmond. We want to write that next great chapter.”

He refers to himself as a “grand convener, bringing all the parties around the table” in the struggle to improve the lives of Richmond’s children, the focus of his campaign.

Brame then showed two clips from the film Selma, which tracked the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, which many people believe was the catalyst for President Lyndon Baines Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act.

One of the excerpts shown was a woman, played by Oprah Winfrey, trying to register to vote. She is unfairly asked to answer three tough questions, and after getting the first two right, fails at the ridiculously difficult third one. The government official stamps “Denied” on her application.

The other showed Dr. King and others organizing the march.

Brame skilfully contrasted the attitude of Stoney with the struggles faced by the people around Dr. King,  noting that the Selma march came together around a very specific and definable injustice, that of keeping  blacks from voting. Brame opened the floor for discussion, but not before noting that she felt she herself had come of age in a “sort of magic place” — a brief era of opportunity when affirmative action and other policies sought redress for the wrongs of the past, thanks to the work of Dr. King and countless others in the civil rights movement.

Students, who displayed a sophisticated understanding of history as well as the law’s response to racism, were divided on the question of whether millennials are right to downplay the past and look towards  bright future.

One said she found it “belittling” when people speak as if racism is a thing of the past, and a “disservice” to move past without having deep conversations. Others said they found the mayor’s optimism inspiring and thought it was helpful in forming the kind of relationships needed to make change. Still others related their own tales of astounding discrimination.

Brame also asked her mother, who lived through the era of the Civil Rights Act, to comment.

Noting that both she and her husband had good jobs and were able to provide a middle class life for their children, her mother added, “The company I worked for had a good record for hiring minorities, but what the stats don’t show is that the minority people mainly worked in the lower class jobs. So I would go to meetings and be the only black face in the room. I actually had a situation where there were several white men around me, and one leaned over to the other and said, ‘Who is she and why is she here?’ I was so taken back I didn’t even say anything.”

One of the students said that he thought the way in which many of the courts addressed making equality more widespread after Brown v. Education was demeaning.

“When our state legislatures refused to rectify our problems, people said, OK, we’ll get civil rights done through the interstate commerce clause [which requires compliance with federal laws by any business that participates in the ‘general economy’]. But that seems to say, ‘We only care about you as long as you’re spending money,’” he said.

Brame noted that would be a good subject for a law review article.

Professor Christopher Hastings commended the Richmond mayor, saying, “He defined himself as a young man and he challenged everyone in his community by saying, ‘You’re better than the stuff that created these relics of racism.’ I don’t know whether he believes that entirely, but he wasn’t talking about not being proud of your heritage, just saying he wasn’t going to be defined or limited by it. It’s possible for both sides to be true.”

And Professor Michael Molitor noted that, regardless of how much progress has or has not been made, the challenge to voting rights continues. “This is going to get worse and worse. Voter ID laws, polls closing down early, other things that happen primarily in Africa-American areas, this is a problem the courts can address,” he said. “The ostensible justification for this is voter fraud, but there’s really no evidence of voter fraud at any mass scale. I think that’s going to be a really important issue.”

But perhaps the most telling moment came from student and BLSA?member Kenyata McGill, shown in the group photo at the far left.

“I’m 25 years old, and I would love to sit here and say I’m a ‘young’ woman, but ‘black’ is not something we put on ourselves,” she said. “We’re getting told time and time again who we are, and now you have a people who’s tired and beaten, but they’re not allowed” — she paused as she was overcome with emotion, then continued, “They’re not allowed to show that they’re weak. And we’re not, really, we are a strong people. In the past we’ve had to fight just to be considered human.

“My generation seems to me to be asleep at the wheel, or maybe we just became numb. But I see my nieces and nephews, and they give me hope. And when I’m done here, I’ll be in my

community pushing for love. It’s about loving the people around you, not just about black or white.”