January 2015 Bar Bulletin
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January 2015 Bar Bulletin

MLK and the United States of Ferguson


For the meetings of KCBA's MLK Luncheon Committee, there is one ground rule: First you eat. Co-chair Karen Murray knows that an army marches on its stomach, so we are not talking about take-out from a chain deli. Think instead of home-made pulled pork sandwiches accompanied by crispy cole slaw and pickles. And, for non-meat eaters, a creamy corn chowder. All topped off with a slice of ridiculously delicious vanilla cake.

Before the meeting officially begins, the conversation feels a bit like a family reunion. Pictures of committee member Pallavi Wahi's new baby are passed around and admired. Others provide updates on the latest with their families.

Then someone mentions hearing that Seattle attorney Rita Bender had been back in Mississippi last summer - 50 years after the Ku Klux Klan murdered her husband, Michael Schwerner, for helping to register black voters in Mississippi. Bender was also a field worker for the Congress of Racial Equality in the 1960s. Her activism continued this year by calling out the U.S. Congress for failing to restore the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court struck down key provisions.

And with that shift in the conversation, the Committee got to work. The food and the family talk are important for people who have been dedicated to advancing civil rights for years. They know that this is not a task force that swoops in, gets it done and moves on. This is an effort that requires decades-long staying power.

Murray later recalled the influence that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave to her and others in the black communities. "He gave us hope and inspired us through his eloquent speeches and his undeniable courage, when he made the conscious decision to lead nonviolent protests throughout the South."

Seeing civil rights protesters enduring withering attacks, she says, "made us realize we had the right to have equal access to opportunities that our white counterparts had, whether it be pursuing a better education beyond separate-but-equal, electing to live outside the boundaries of public housing, seeking employment that fit our professional pursuits, or exercising our right to vote without fear of reprisal."

Judge Catherine Shaffer, a committee member, told me, "I first became aware of civil rights in a powerful way as a child, seeing pictures in Life magazine of lynchings. I also clearly recall the day that Dr. King was assassinated, and how devastated I felt." For her, those early sparks were re-ignited "reading The New Jim Crow and listening to its incredibly passionate, articulate and intelligent author, Michelle Alexander, when she spoke to an audience of nearly 1,000 at (2013) MLK Luncheon."

With recent decisions by Missouri and New York grand juries not to indict white police officers in the deaths of unarmed African-Americans, what lessons do we in these United States of Ferguson (to borrow Bill Moyer's phrase) bring from the work of Dr. King and the thousands of civil rights activists who joined together to blow a hole in the Jim Crow era?

Committee member Jim Lobsenz observes, "Once exposed to the principles of nonviolent resistance taught by Gandhi, King came to understand that Americans would not stand for the use of police tactics such as turning dogs on protesters. Police tactics have changed, dogs and fire hoses are no longer in use. Now it's almost exclusively guns." He continued, "People won't stand for that either."

KCBF Trustee Kathleen Petrich recently emailed me that "perhaps we as bar leaders have been sitting on the sideline a bit too long (e.g., Ferguson and previously our own Seattle incident, which took the life of Native American carver John T. Williams). This is an opportunity for the bar ... to step up and look for alliances in the legal, academic, and business community."

I think Kathleen is right. The solution to this complex social, racial and political quagmire will undoubtedly require the dedicated and thoughtful efforts of lawyers, individually and collectively. That work should and must be informed and inspired by Dr. King's legacy.

As Murray concluded, "I can't help but wonder how Dr. King would have responded to the recent deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed as he played with a toy gun in a park in Cleveland, Ohio. I can't help but think he would have said, 'Peacefully take to the streets and let your voices be heard. Let the world see that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.'"

Let's link arms at KCBA's 2015 MLK Luncheon on January 16 and be part of that march.

KCBA President Steve Rovig is a principal with Hillis Clark Martin & Peterson P.S. where his practice emphasizes commercial real estate. Rovig can be reached at steve.rovig@hcmp.com or 206-470-7620.


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