Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Panel and Audience Discussion

Richard Watson, Director of Exhibitions at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, welcomed the audience and spoke briefly about the Museum and its current exhibition, Audacious Freedom: African Americans in Philadelphia 1776-1876. Following Watson, Charlene Mires, one of the editors of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, spoke briefly about the project’s purposes, goals, and plans. The evening’s facilitator, Alexis Moore, of the American Friends Service Committee, reflected that the modern Civil Rights Movement has been permeated by black attorneys who broke down barriers at every opportunity. In this way, the progress of black people is measured by these well-deserved rights under the law that have been fought for and earned. Moore, a daughter of the late Cecil B. Moore, then spoke of her family’s legacy in this struggle and how she is most proud of how they were people that worked for and created change. She believes that African-Americans as a community need to continue to stand together behind the bulwark of law. Moore then briefly introduced the two panelists for the evening, David Canton, Associate Professor of History at Connecticut College and author of the new book Raymond Pace Alexander: A New Negro Lawyer Fights for Civil Rights in Philadelphia, and Michael Coard, defense attorney and a founding member of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC). Panel Discussion Moore asked the panelists what they think the public perception of black lawyers is today – are they social engineers or protectors of corporate interests? David Canton remarked that the idea of black or white is a nuance and that people have different roles in the struggle; while some are social engineers, others serve better as public defenders However, everyone works toward a common ground which is important because, when it is lost, we lose the purpose of the fight. Michael Coard called attention to civil rights attorney Charles Hamilton Houston’s declaration that a lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society. Beginning with this statement, he asked whether lawyers can still be social engineers even if they are working in a corporate environment? Coard believes that not only is it possible but that there is nothing wrong with a person becoming a corporate lawyer. In this way each person is finding his or her own way in the world of law. Coard then explained that whenever he speaks to black law students he tells them not to look the way he appears now. He suggested that students should play the role that society expects of them for the first ten to fifteen years. Coard also disagreed with the public perception that lawyers are just “doing it for the money.” He argued that this is true for many of them, it is not true for all lawyers. Alexis Moore added that the most important qualification for black lawyers is for them to be on the top of their game. Next, Moore noted that research indicates the number of blacks attending law schools nationwide have declined. She then asked the panelists if this reflects a backlash against affirmative action or is there declining interest in law as a career? Michael Coard responded that there are several factors for the decline in attendance, with the economy playing a large role. He added that black lawyers currently represent only four percent of legal professionals. In addition to the economy, he argued that there are internal and external factors for the decrease in black law students. Internally, he believes that black youths are not taking school as seriously as they should be and that, consequently, their priorities are not focused where they should be. Externally, there are continuing issues of racism as well as a backlash to affirmative action that affect prospective black students interested in law. However, Coard added that any obstacles faced by blacks struggling to break into the legal world today pale in comparison to those challenges faced by the first black lawyers in the 1840s. David Canton argued that part of the reason for the decline a backlash against affirmative action. After this backlash began, many flagship schools took away scholarships intended for African-American candidates. Even though more African Americans are going to college than previously, they are not attending flagship schools and, therefore, not being admitted to equally prestigious law schools. Consequently, many organizations and law firms are not under pressure to diversify. To combat this problem, Canton argued that aspiring black students must have great grades and test scores. Lastly, the facilitator asked the panelists what key issues should black attorneys be working on or engaged in currently? She listed several topics that she believes are important today, including: criminal justice (sentencing disparities, the drug problem, and isolation in prison), environmental issues, and political education (teaching basic civics, citizens rights, and organizing for elections). Michael Coard responded that black lawyers should be fighting battles on all fronts. However, he thinks that the most important matter involves receiving reparations because solving this issue will cover many of the problems facing the African American community. Coard argued that proper reparations means opportunity and not, as commonly perceived in both white and black communities, a monetary settlement. Reparations should be a hand-up, not a hand-out, and should work to repair what was done wrong over centuries where white people received unjust enrichment. David Canton commented that the book When Affirmative Action was White by Ira Katznelson may be of interest to those interested in the current discussion. Regarding the issue of reparations, he argued that the black community must first agree that reparations constitute a universal issue. Then, they must get organized and engage in a discourse over what “reparations” means. Only after all of this work is done can African Americans properly explain what they want. Alexis Moore added that while the black community acknowledges that it has problems, one of its strengths is the drive to come together and talk about these issues. Also, all members of the community must develop their specific roles to play and discover how they can best contribute. She then presented Vivienne Crawford to the audience and explained how she played a part in the Girard College movement, which then motivated her to become an attorney. Michael Coard then asked the audience to acknowledge all of the black judges and attorneys present that evening and thanked them for attending. He argued that black lawyers have an obligation to do the right thing and that it is now time to work to payback their ancestors for their hard work and sacrifice. He stated that he is a black man who just happens to be a lawyer, not the other way around. Alexis Moore remarked that black youths today need more direct instruction than previous generations. She believes that the rapid changes in technology over the past several decades have severed the old ways of transferring cultural values. Technology has broken the communication that used to occur between generations and, therefore, the young and old no longer share the same cultural values. Moore added that she does not blame technology for this change, but that she places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the black community for not recognizing the danger and moving to stop it. Audience Discussion The audience questions began with an observation. The attendee identified himself as an attorney who happened to be a non-native Philadelphian and noted that the African American community needs more black lawyers, both men and women, because as their numbers decrease, the opportunities of the entire community dwindle. Additionally, when people reach a certain level of affluence and opportunity, such as becoming a partner in a firm, they must then use their level of status to give back to the community. As an example, the attendee noted how his firm continually hires people of all levels of ability, allowing these new employees to get a glimpse of the opportunities that are available. Alexis Moore responded that she wishes young black people would realize that a law education is more than working for the courts – in essence, a law student is taught to learn how to argue and speak. She offered that this is a valuable lesson that can then be applied to many different career paths. Another audience member stated that she attended the evening’s events for two reasons: Cecil B. Moore was her inspiration for going to law school and becoming a lawyer, and also that the topic for the evening was both relevant and of particular interest to her work. She noted that, during her work for the Pennsylvania Bar Association, she led a panel focused on the exact same topic, i.e. the role of black attorneys. Furthermore, the previous panel had reached conclusions similar to tonight’s – namely, that black lawyers need to become more active and involved. The discipline of law is broad enough to allow a person to find and focus on a particular aspect that suits their interests. She also argued that black lawyers need to stick together and that there the sense of entitlement that permeates the discipline has reached an unacceptable level. No one person has achieved the level where they are by themselves, but this notion continues to haunt the legal profession. Unfortunately, people no longer seem to think that they still need their peers or their community. An attendee reiterated the need for the African American legal community to become organized, socially active, and culturally sensitive. He argued that “people came before me” and taught him societal and cultural values that were instrumental to his life. Another audience member argued that greater societal issues of gentrification, homelessness, and the arrival of new cultures have created large problems for the black community. David Canton noted that the displacement of the working poor and the condition of the homeless are serious problems for the African American community in Philadelphia and throughout the country. Also, black people are just as susceptible to gentrification as the rest of society once they reach a level of affluence that allows for the change. How do African Americans create a model of gentrification that works for them? Furthermore, since there is a smaller portion of black people with good jobs, there is an equally small percentage that are able to take advantage of the opportunities afforded to them. Michael Coard agreed with Canton on the problems plaguing black communities and how an African-American-specific model must be developed to combat them. Alexis Moore offered that neighborhoods feel “encroached upon” because people already want to leave. One of the necessary roles of black lawyers is to educate people of their rights, such as the specifics of the zoning code laws. This education will enable people to feel that they do not have to move out of their neighborhoods. Also, she argued that citizen action movements are essential in that they allow people to come together as neighbors to educate themselves and instigate change. These actions give people the leverage needed to negotiate with elected officials, reminding the audience that Frederick Douglass once asserted how, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Ultimately, if the black community wants to maintain electoral power, there is a need to group up and talk to one another. David Canton added that the recent eminent domain case in London, England, provides a similar example of how a neighborhood joined together to combat government intrusion. An audience member mentioned how the following Monday marked the fifty-sixth anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education. He then offered a detailed account of black lawyers in America, providing a list of notable books published detailing their struggles, achievements, and storied history. An attendee observed that there is an overabundance of white attorneys with black clients and argued that a large problem within the African American community because too many black people that seem to want more than what is offered by black professionals. Another attendee agreed, arguing that there is a tendency for black clients to seek the aid of black lawyers only after they have already exhausted their money elsewhere. She finds it reprehensible how, after originally seeking help from white lawyers, the clients now expect handouts and empathy for their plight. She particularly finds this disrespectful because the implication is that the black lawyer should help not because they are qualified, but simply because they are black. Alexis Moore reminded the audience that when African Americans end up in the courtrooms of black judges that they should expect no pity or leniency simply due to the color of their skin. After all, they too grew up under the same conditions and facing the same struggles. Similarly, black attorneys know that there is a different standard set when they litigate in the presence of a black judge. However, Moore argued that there exists a disconnect between black lawyers and the needs of their communities in that there is no longer the desire to take care of each other first. An attendee asked the panel, what advice would they give a young person who wants to become a lawyer but has a juvenile record? Michael Coard responded that prior convictions do not necessarily preclude a person from entering the legal profession. Furthermore, juvenile adjudications are sealed or even expunged from the records after people reach a certain age. The attendee then responded that African American adults should give more respect to young black people, mentioning that a sixteen-year-old is not a kid and should be referred to as a young man or an adult. Alexis Moore noted the power of the voice of the younger generations. For example, the public had no knowledge of the Jena 6 until young people brought it to public awareness. An audience member asked, why is there not a greater movement for reparations? Alexis Moore argued that the African American community became too focused on the present, thus forgetting to take a longer and more historical view of their struggles. She commented that African Americans must ask themselves why they are so afraid of confronting each other about the issue of reparations. David Canton added that the idea of reparations is not a new idea, it was being mentioned as early as the 1890s. Also, he thinks that there is a perception among a large part of the black community that reparations are unachievable. An attendee mentioned that any concept of reparations should include the injustices that black people continue to face on a daily basis. Furthermore, reparations should have had a more prominent role throughout the Civil Rights Movement, perhaps enationlven constituting a portion of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech in Washington in 1963. Alexis Moore responded that she does not hear the same passion for reparations in the voices of young black people. Consequently, there can be no agreement on what reparations should look like and organizations such as the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) cannot broaden their approach to achieving some form of resolution. If reparations are the goal, then the community must define what that means and young people must get involved in the debate and understand why reparations are important to the entire black community. Another attendee agreed, adding that black people do not trust each other enough and that they must learn to trust in order to achieve change. An attendee mentioned a personal, familial connection to the adjudicators of the Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education. He also expressed personal grievances with the American criminal justice and legal systems. Alexis Moore explained that the black press exists for just such a reason, to serve voice the concerns of the African-American community. She argued that the voice of the black community is its most important aspect. An audience member expressed his belief that there has been too much talk about reparations and that he believes that it is not as important an issue as the panelists think. Also, he argued that black youths no longer seem capable of taking criticism and that they possess too much of an ego. He maintained that, when young, a person does not know as much as they believe that they do. Another attendee agreed with regards to reparations, explaining that the black community does not possess enough of a collective consciousness to know what “reparations” means. He also added that there is a need for black lawyers to make connections with jailhouse lawyers and other community members to educate black society. An audience member mentioned that, as someone who has worked in the prison system, there exist major problems in the country’s jails and penitentiaries. He then inquired what black lawyers can do (such as programs or education) to keep more people out of jail? Michael Coard answered that attorneys should work to encourage black students to enter the legal profession. Also, black lawyers should personally engage in activism and strive to support the black community in any way possible. David Canton argued that getting young black people to go to school and get a good education is the key to keeping more people out of jail. Alexis Moore agreed, saying that education “isn’t just something, it’s everything.” An attendee asked the panelists if there was anything that could be done to improve the criminal justice system? Michael Coard responded that people must simply continue to fight the good fight. He acknowledged that, while the struggle is a difficult and often uphill battle, it can be won. Furthermore, more black people must understand that life is about more than just money. He added that too many people are self-centered, and that this has infected every profession, not just lawyers. Lastly, an audience member noted that we are currently approaching the twenty-fifth anniversary of the bombing of the MOVE organization at 6221 Osage Avenue. He asked the panel if there was anything that black lawyers are doing to fight the city of Philadelphia to correct the injustices performed by the city during those days? Michael Coard explained that, although he was unable to go into details, a group of black lawyers would be making an announcement the following day, May 12, regarding a lawsuit that they were bringing against the city that was directly related to the bombing and its aftermath. Alexis Moore added that this was a perfect example of how black attorneys can move things and create change when they become active and involved.

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