BY TIFFANY BENJAMIN
This past weekend, the Black Law Students Association set out to develop an agenda for the changing face of the black political experience as it hosted its 20th Annual Spring Conference on the Law School campus.
“The primary purpose is to reconnect alumni to current students and faculty members to discuss issues that relate to the black community and the community at large,” said 2L Nekia Hackworth, Spring Conference Committee Co-Chair.
The conference, entitled “In Search of an Agenda: New Federalism, New Corporate Responsibility and New Political Values in the 21st Century” was a two-and-a-half day event filled with panel discussions, luncheons and parties. Approximately 200 people attended this year’s conference from throughout Harvard and the Boston community.
“This year we were very determined to address some of the most pertinent issues given all of the modifications in how we previously thought about civil rights, corporate rights and the political process,” said Hackworth. Hackworth noted that the conference was extremely timely in lieu of the Supreme Court’s decision to review the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policy in April.
“Given the magnitude of the change, it made the conference all the more critical. We were very fortunate that the conference was able to get people to think about what they want the world to look like in the next five to ten years,” she said.
The conference began on Friday with a set of career panels targeted mostly at 1Ls and 2Ls in which associates and partners from firms throughout the nation spoke on their specific areas of expertise. Career panels focused on issues from corporate lawyering to litigation to the lives of black lawyers in Washington, D.C. One of the most popular career panels was focused on judicial clerkships.
“Clerkships were a mystery for me and are a mystery for me still, but it’s nice to talk to folks and see the value of clerkships in terms of your career,” said 1L Walter Mosley. “What the conference did do was to expand whatever I thought I wanted to be and give me more options and more things to consider.”
Mary Jo White, former U.S. Attorney of the Southern District of New York, spoke on “Civil Liberties and the Fight against Terrorism,” as part of the Saturday School series, which was integrated into this year’s conference. White discussed the high cost of protecting national security and conceded that the cost involves sacrificing some civil liberties, in particular the liberties of non-Americans.
“In waging the war against terrorism, we are fighting for justice and our nation and the world’s security,” said White in her controversial speech.
In Conference’s keynote address, Eric H. Holder, Jr., the first African-American Deputy Attorney General (’97-’01), spoke on the importance of developing an agenda for the African-American community and the part black lawyers play in shaping and molding that agenda. He focused on the need for black students to look to the past for inspiration, but to continue to move forward, considering that their actions would blaze the trail for future generations.
“His speech inspired me to become more than just a lawyer, but rather to become an inspirational figure to my community both at Harvard and at home,” said 1L Mercedes Davis.
On Saturday, the conference turned toward discussion of political and social issues impacting the black community as a whole. A panel entitled “The Changing Face of Corporate Governance” analyzed the impact of the recently signed Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which is designed to increase corporate accountability. As part of its requirements, attorneys must report the illegal activities of their corporate clients to the government. Securities and Exchange Commission officials, professors and lawyers discussed the implications of this Act and its effect on new lawyers that will emerge in the coming years.
In the “An Examination of Federalism in the Federal Judiciary” forum, speakers including Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, David Halperin, executive director of the American Constitutional Society and Prof. Randall McLaughlin of Pace University Law School spoke on issues such as the recent Supreme Court case on cross-burning and the future of affirmative action. McLaughlin predicted that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of Michigan on the current affirmative action debate. Reinhardt disagreed, stating that Justice O’Connor, perceived by both to be the swing vote, would vote to end affirmative action.
During the alumni luncheon, Spencer Overton, a George Washington University law professor, discussed the need for black lawyers to develop a personal agenda, sharing his own experiences and explaining how he chose to become a professor.
“It was his story about how he wanted to go back and help his people and he found out that the way he could really help was to join academia,” said Mosley, who is also Overton’s cousin.
In the “Managing the Shift: New Political Values in the 21st Century” forum, discussion centered on the changing face of the black political perspective. Congressmen Artur Davis (D-Ala.), Greg Moore, executive director of the NAACP Voter Fund and Melanie Campbell, executive director and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, discussed the difficulties that black candidates face in getting elected. Panelists analyzed the problems black candidates have in appealing to a white middle-class constituency without offending their African-American base.
Davis stated that the Democratic Party had failed to support black Democratic candidates by not “clearing the deck for black political candidates.” He also accused the party of failing to put all of its resources behind black candidates. Campbell noted that it was important to not allow anyone to “put black issues in a box,” meaning that candidates should never view issues pertinent to the African-American community as issues that only relate to that community.
The conference closed on Sunday with a gospel luncheon and a speaker from the Divinity School. In the end, BLSA members felt satisfied with what the conference was able to accomplish.
“I think that this conference is really BLSA at its very best — in terms of educating the Law School community and the local Boston community about issues of importance to the black community and also in terms of connecting current students, prospective students and alumni,” said 3L Danielle C. Gray, Spring Conference committee co-chair.
Hackworth added that she hopes to see the conference expand to a larger audience in the future. “We want to see a direct growth in value and attendance. Ten years from now, we want a conference in excess of 500 people and a large number of alumni who are in all areas of practice. Law touches so many aspects of society. We want to see those brilliant minds brought together. We set a high bar for ourselves and we are going to keep getting closer and closer to that bar.”