"Race, Values, and the American Legal Process," a Conference in Honor of A. Leon Higginbotham, Feb. 22-24
For Cynthia Johnson '03, attending a class taught by A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. '52, while she was at Harvard provided a unique opportunity. On the first day of class, CNN cameras were recording Higginbotham as he taught, and the very first student he called on was her. But Johnson's opportunity to learn from Higginbotham also proved "very inspirational"--and provided some of the impetus for an upcoming scholarly conference in Higginbotham's honor at YLS.
Johnson '03 explains that she was personally influenced by Judge Higginbotham in the time she knew him; in fact, he encouraged her to come to Yale Law School, his alma mater. In addition, she found his example inspiring. Higginbotham's career, including his appointment as the first African American to serve on a federal regulatory board and tenure as chief judge of the Third Circuit, showed that "one individual can impact the law, can change the law," says Johnson.
When Judge Higginbotham passed away in 1998, Johnson started thinking about doing something to honor his legacy. The title of the conference, "Race, Values, and the American Legal Process," is derived from the course she took from Higginbotham and the subtitle of two of his books.
But, for Johnson, Higginbotham's example went beyond personal inspiration. "His impact on the legal system is profound," she says. Higginbotham's scholarship dealt with the overt biases in the American legal system up until the civil rights movement, and revealed how prejudice subsequently persisted in more subtle forms. As a legal scholar and a jurist, Higginbotham was a powerful champion of affirmative action and civil rights.
The conference aims to build on all that Higginbotham accomplished and at the same time generate new ideas through focused discourse. "Judge Higginbotham's legacy, as well as the legacy of the civil rights movement generally, is something that the legal profession must grapple with," says Johnson. "Racial injustice does exist . . . and we have a charge to eradicate it," she adds. "The conference will bring together those who have a commitment to changing the legal system."
Panels will consider topics such as "Race, Values, and the Criminal Justice System" and "Race, Values, and Democracy." In addition, the two main speakers at the conference will each contribute current perspectives on civil rights from the political system. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton '64 will give an opening address on Friday night, and Johnson looks forward to hearing "her wisdom, and her insight, and her charge." Newark city councilman and mayoral candidate Cory Booker '97, "who represents the future," according to Johnson, will deliver the keynote address on Saturday evening.
Riva Khoshaba '02, another conference organizer, points out that it can be "difficult in this era to have a dialogue on race" since it is such a charged issue, with different personal agendas surrounding it. And, while some may argue that it is no longer a relevant topic, she maintains that "it's impossible to say there isn't a problem with racism [in this country]."
Khoshaba says that, despite the differences in doctrine and rhetoric that participants in the conference will bring, each shares "a vision of a just society . . . where everybody feels they are an equal participant." The questions remaining that the conference will strive to flesh out are: "What does the vision look like? How do we get there?"
On one question Khoshaba is already decided: "Do we need this discussion?" She answers without hesitation, "Yes."
For more information about the conference, visit the conference website.