By Jennifer Wendel
Tupac’s run-in with police, the incarceration of two innocent women in Mississippi—these are just some of the daily struggles for two civil rights advocates who spoke in Kalamazoo College’s Dalton Theater last Thursday. Rick Halpert, guest teacher of American Jury Trial, organized the talk, “Civil Rights Litigation: What’s Coming Next.”
Speakers Chokwe Lumumba K’69, currently the national chairman and co-founder of the New African Peoples’ Organization, and David Singelton, the executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, are both practicing trial lawyers.
Despite the size of the crowd—less than a fourth of the theater was filled—the talk proved edifying. Murmurs of agreement punctuated much of the speeches, and a question and answer session at the end brought up everything from prisoners’ rights to the ability of democracy to function with capitalist corruption.
The audience tackled difficult questions about social justice to help define their own notions of the subject—something that Lumumba also remembers doing at K. After Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, he became one of the founding members of K’s Black Student Organization.
“[BSO] started a way of learning information where we don’t just accept what was told to us,” Lumumba said.
Today, capitalism is the main source inequality, he said. “There’s something wrong with the world when some people get so filthy rich they can’t even think about spending all their money, and at the same time you got folks scuffling in the streets.”
This disparity is now overtaking the justice systems in the United States, Lumumba said. “You can’t have justice in the criminal system if you don’t have justice in the economic system.”
Lumumba and Singleton agreed that the prison-industrial complex, the idea that the expanding prison system is linked more with increasing profits than increasing justice, is to blame for the inflated number of incarcerations in the U.S. “They say crime does not pay; I don’t think they’re right,” Singleton said. “If crime was stopped tomorrow, think of how many people would be out of a job.”
The lawyers’ own work on fighting pollution in the justice system has led to many difficult past cases—cases with discrimination against people’s race and history. Faith (not necessarily of the religious kind) and forgiveness are key, Singleton said: “Social justice is not just to be done when it is easy.”
“Each new generation must discover its own mission, fulfill it, or betray it,” Lumumba said, paraphrasing Frantz Fanon, a fighter in the Algerian Revolution and author of The Wretched of the Earth. Today it is the next generation’s turn to shoulder the responsibility of social justice, Lumumba said.
Halpert, also a practicing lawyer, has found his own social justice mission to be wholly fulfilling. “What I have discovered is that the only people who ever learn true happiness are those who learn to serve others,” he said.
“I organized the event tonight because I think it is important that people who have been given the gift of a Kalamazoo College education understand the importance of their leadership if bringing about a better world,” Halpert said. “I am overwhelmed with the interest our students show in other people.”