Leah Holder (front left), 1L student at University of Texas Law School in Austin, and fellow students watch President Obama’s televised keynote speech from the LBJ Library’s Civil Rights Summit event. (Angela Morris)
As President Barack Obama spoke on April 10 about the civil rights struggle of 50 years ago, law students who gathered to watch the speech leaned forward in their seats, sometimes laughing, sometimes furrowing their brows in concentration.
The law students came together at The University of Texas at Austin School of Law on the final day of the three-day Civil Rights Summit, which commemorated the act’s 50th anniversary. They heard Obama honor President Lyndon B. Johnson’s skill in passing the landmark civil rights legislation and the act’s legacy of increased opportunities for women and minorities. Noting that the nation still struggles with civil rights issues, Obama urged regular people to be vigilant to ensure that the country progresses toward equality.
With the president in the nation’s spotlight, Texas Lawyer asked law students for their thoughts about the speech, current civil rights issues and what they would do as lawyers to push the civil rights envelope. Here are their answers, edited for style and length.
Texas Lawyer: Thinking about Obama’s speech, could you explain your thoughts on any points that evoked in you a strong reaction, either positive or negative?
Leah Holder, first-year law student: I like that he mentioned that some people talk and act as though nothing has changed in this country, and I like that he specifically said that he rejected that. For me, I was born in ’88, and I actually grew up all throughout grade school never feeling judged based on the color of my skin. … Stories like mine—there would be no way it would be possible 50 years ago. … I also like that he acknowledged that we don’t live, by any means, in a postracist society. We still do have very real problems. There’s still a lot of room for growth.
Sam Jacobson, third-year law student: I think, in many ways, Obama’s speech was a tribute to LBJ’s legacy. … I thought that was interesting. I thought he talked surprisingly little about his efforts in going forward and really focused on the legacy of the Great Society, LBJ’s incredible efforts to get the legislation passed. … I think faith in government is waning. I think it’s important to reemphasize the incredible achievements that have been made and its [government's] ability to be a force for good.
Sunil Jamal, first-year law student: I think the main thing that I got from him is the great analogy between swimming and a relay race—how the progress that was done from the influencers from before is based off of the progress that he and others are going to make now, but it’s all relying on the progress that others will make in the future. I think it’s important to recognize this is just a battle that’s been won, but the war is not over. I think it’s important to recognize that progress is not the end. It should be just a stepping stone for others to rely on in the future.
TL: In your opinion, what is the most important civil rights issue that people in the United States still face today?
Holder: Hands down: the discrepancy in education. I taught with a program called Teach For America, and I got to see, today, that the correlation between education and economic opportunity is so direct. The fact that there’s such a discrepancy between your average African-American or Hispanic child and your average Caucasian child in terms of the quality of education, it just perpetuates the cycle. Even though there may be opportunities out there, they will never have access to those if they are not put on more of an equal playing field in terms of education.
Jacobson: I think we’re still struggling to implement a lot of the civil rights reforms that came about through the civil rights movement. … I think, over time, you’ve seen those weakened by administrations and by the Supreme Court. … There’s certainly current civil rights battles going on over same-sex marriage and immigration. I think those are important and not meant to be put to the wayside. But, I think, more than anything, we have a robust regime of antidiscrimination statues, and I think we need to return and make sure those are working to full effect.
Hannah Alexander, first-year law student: I think the most important one is marriage equality. … But I think also another issue that’s incredibly important is the struggles of undocumented Americans. I’m calling them “undocumented Americans” because many of them have been in this country a lot longer than I have, have worked to do everything they can for themselves, for this country, for their families. I’m hoping that there will be some change soon.
Jamal: The issue has gone to same-sex marriages. I think, slowly but surely, we’re getting to a point where it’s being accepted. … The LGBT community is facing the same circumstances that African-Americans faced, that women faced, that other denominations have faced in the past. Eventually it will come to a conclusion, I hope in several decades, where we look back at this time and think of it as a wrong, as we do with slavery and as we do with gender inequality.
TL: The 1964 Civil Rights Act was shaped and molded into what it is today by attorneys who represented clients in litigation and by judges who issued opinions in those cases. As a future lawyer, what do you believe that the legal community needs to do to continue pushing the envelope on civil rights? If you see yourself playing any role, what would that be?
Holder: I like that [Obama] specifically mentioned that some people tried to discourage President Johnson, saying it was a lost cause. I think one thing we can do in the legal community is continue taking up seemingly lost causes. Keep litigating, keep pushing.
Jacobson: I think the legal community has always taken their role in advancing civil rights pretty seriously, and I think you still continue to see even a lot of law firms playing a major part in helping to bring civil rights lawsuits. … Although in the end, I don’t think that’s enough. And I don’t think Congress’ role should be lost in this. I think we too often focus on the role that the courts can play in things, and I think there’s an important role that Congress and the legislature—especially the state legislatures—play these days. … I don’t think we can lose the grassroots work and trying to get reforms passed.
Alexander: The summer before my senior year in high school, I had a friend whose family emigrated from India. They got asylum. They went through all the proper channels. Then their attorney missed a crucial filing deadline. So they were in the country technically illegally. Then immigration authorities broke down their front door, arrested him, sent his parents to a detention facility in West Texas and sent him to a juvenile detention facility in Chicago. So my best friend and I kind of started this campaign to get leniency and awareness of the issue. … That was my impetus to go to law school. I believe it’s the most effective way for me to make social change happen. … I’m definitely on the public interest path. I’m interested in civil rights, immigration, human rights and indigent defense.