Dean’s Diversity Forum Examines Progress on Equality and the Road Ahead
Web Editor - Published: March 28, 2013
Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the iconic “I Have a Dream Speech,” in which he said:
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
Those words framed an insightful discussion on Widener Law’s Harrisburg campus on Tuesday, March 26th about how far the United States has come – and how far it still has to go – in fulfilling King’s dream some fifty years later. This year’s entry in the annual Dean’s Diversity Forum, “Fifty Years after ‘Freedom’s Greatest Demonstration’,” continued a tradition begun by Widener Law Dean Linda L. Ammons in 2007.

Dean Linda L. Ammons makes her opening remarks.

Finishing the Work
“Why do we do this? Because while we have begun to overcome, we have not overcome just yet,” said Dean Ammons as she offered her opening remarks following a brief introduction from Black Law Students Association President Morgan Davis.

After touching on some of the historical figures that had such a massive impact on the 20th century civil rights movement, including Rosa Parks, Dean Ammons quoted King’s 1963 speech with an emphasis on that promissory note that King said the founding fathers issued, and then she said, “We are here today to discuss to what degree the funds in the American bank of justice are more bountiful today then they were fifty years ago, and whether they are yet sufficient to cover the note created at our nation’s founding.”

“Nearly fifty years after the march on Washington, Dr. King’s work – our work – is not finished,” she concluded before playing a video clip of President Barack Obama speaking at the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on October 16th, 2011.

Dean Ammons then challenged the audience not just to remember King’s words but also to be emboldened by them before playing a video clip of King delivering part of the famous speech.

The Challenge of a Post-Racial Society
“Progress does not necessarily mean post-racial,” said F. Michael Higgenbotham, the Wilson H. Elkins Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore School of Law, as he spoke to open the event’s first panel, “Ending Racism in a Post-Racial America.”

Higgenbotham offered a compelling look at the progress that has been made, saying, “In this country today, everyone can aspire to and can in fact achieve the highest goals in our society,” adding, “We need to take pride in those achievements.”

He quickly countered that despite that progress, however, evidence shows that there are vast differences in socio-economic status that indicate that equality and a post-racial society remain a dream. In addition to discussing those socio-economic factors, he articulated what he believed to be the primary causes of those continued disparaties, a subject he wrote about in his recent book, Ghosts of Jim Crow.

“We have an opportunity to hold our country to its first and most important promise – that all people are created equal,” said Higgenbotham before concluding, “If we fail to continue to have this conversation, we will never reach that post-racial society.”

Peter Speaks, Special Counsel to Pennsylvania State Senator Vincent Hughes and Jacqueline Rucker, Executive Director of Christian Churches United joined Higgenbotham as panelists, while Samuel T. Cooper III, a Partner at Dilworth Paxson LLP served as moderator.

Concurring with Professor Higgenbotham’s remarks, Sellers, said, “I think the evidence is clear that we don’t live in a post-racial society,” while Rucker observed that President Obama’s election has become a distraction and that too many people have put all of the pressure of achieving a “post-racial” society on the President.

A Jury With No Peers
The second panel, “Race and Language in a Jury of My Peers,” featured University of Pittsburgh School of Law Professor Jasmine Gonzales Rose, Sharon Lopez ‘93 of Triquetra Law, and Assistant Federal Defender Robert B. Dunham of the Federal Public Defender for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Capital Habeas Corpus Unit. Legal Methods Professor Starla Williams moderated the panel.

“Language has really taken a back seat to other civil rights issues,” said Professor Gonzales, who challenged the tacit acceptance of exclusions based on English language proficiency.

Dunham offered a thorough and damning look at jury selection in death penalty cases, saying, “We have this conception that you get a jury of your peers, but in a capital case, that’s just not true,” before providing examples from studies done in Philadelphia, North Carolina, and Texas that decisively indicated potential black jurors were peremptorily challenged from capital trials at a significantly higher rate.

Lopez spoke about her personal experiences with the jury selection process and offered some helpful tips for other lawyers on how to approach it. She urged other lawyers not to forget the practical barriers to jury duty that average people face and encouraged them to find ways to mitigate the self-selection process in order to achieve a more diverse jury.

Watch the Program
The Pennsylvania Cable Network will broadcast the Dean’s Leadership Forum on Diversity in its entirety on Friday March 29th at 9:30 a.m. and again on Saturday, March 30th at 2:00 p.m.

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