As I reflect upon Black History Month and how I ended up here at the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, I realize that my path to the ACLU probably began before I was born.
I met my Uncle Harry John Bowie ten years after his initial participation in the civil rights movement. He was an Episcopal priest who became deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi beginning in 1964 (Freedom Summer). He inspired me throughout my life with stories about his work and his demonstrated forgiving, patient manner.
Like so many others, Uncle Harry worked to help Black Mississippians register to vote. As an advocate for racial justice and civil rights, he was targeted by the police for offenses, such as walking by the Governor’s Mansion. In those days in Mississippi, if you were a Black man trying to register other Black Mississippians to vote, that was called “inciting a riot,” “trespassing” or “loitering.” He was arrested throughout the state and was often represented by Al Bronstein, former director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. Because of this, after meeting my uncle and learning — over the course of 25 years — about his work and the causes he championed, I had a deep respect for advocates for racial justice, the ACLU, and the central role that the ACLU plays in civil rights.
I grew up wanting to be a civil rights lawyer. The question people often ask is: Wasn’t the work accomplished when forms of explicit racism were made illegal? The answer is no. While my uncle and others were subjected to unfair charges from the government in 1964, children in Mississippi are still subjected to similar irrational and unfair government practices in Mississippi schools. For instance, I was one of the ACLU attorneys who represented a student who was accused of gang activity in 2009 and expelled from school after he took a picture of himself at home while dancing. The school police searched his cell phone at school and he was accused of “throwing gang signs” in the picture. The case of R.W. in Desoto County, Mississippi is an example of how innocent conduct by a Black student can still be characterized as criminal action.
R.W.’s case is just one portion of the work I now do with the ACLU, advocating against the school to prison pipeline, which includes addressing the subtle forms of racism that plague schoolchildren now. Zero tolerance policies, the use of the police in a school setting, subjective discipline categories like “gang activity” or “disruptive conduct,” and inappropriate special education classifications or services, are all ways that public schools can now limit the life chances for students of color and send them to jail. I know, given my family’s history, that “disrupting class,” “gang activity,” and “emotionally disturbed” are just the 2012 equivalent of “loitering,” “inciting a riot” and “trespassing.” Luckily, here at the ACLU, we are still fighting against such hypocrisy and advocating for racial justice.
This blog is one of several personal testimonials written by ACLU staff members to commemorate Black History Month.