Celebrating Champions of Justice or The Day I Cried in Class

I’m usually a “shoot from the hip” kind of professor.  I prepare notes and presentations, but then I just talk with the students.  I ask questions.  And I try to lead them to thinking through issues more thoroughly.  My class is made up of 10 students from all over the world.  None of them are from the U.S.  They are here studying “Democratic Governance and Rule of Law” which is a fancy way of saying that we are teaching local attorneys to have the skills to reform their own justice systems.  My class is focused on American history and the American legal system, but they have other classes in comparative constitutional law, international law, human rights, issues in transitional democracies, etc.  We’re taking a break from the textbook this week to do a module on racial discrimination in America and the civil rights movement.  So in preparing a lesson slavery and the civil war and jim crow laws, to a class that includes four students from Africa, I thought long and hard about how to introduce this topic.  Contrary to my usual practice, I wrote it down.  

“Why study this particular story?  Why focus on something that shows the worst of America during a class that is also celebrating America as the vanguard of modern democracy?

There is a purpose to this program.  It is to recognize that some of the most horrific and intractable problems in the world are caused, or made worse, by the absence of rule of law. 

This program is intended to give you the tools to be a champion of justice.  To be someone who has the right skills to change:  change laws, change organizations, change practice, and change minds.

But we would be doing you a disservice if we reduced this all down to technical skills.  Justice is more than getting the law right.  Justice is more than a correct analysis.  Justice is more than a case, or a program, or an organization.  Justice is the experience of a protected citizenry—it is the flourishing of society when laws are fair and enforced. 

So we need to step back and examine justice from a human side.  This is one story of ghastly injustice, and the very long road walked by thousands of brave advocates, who together were able to make progress towards justice, while still recognizing that there is a long way to go. 

We can learn from the injustice.  We can learn to recognize prejudice in our own lives and cultures by examining this story.  We can learn from great and courageous people how to stand up against prejudice.  We can learn to be champions of justice by examining injustice and the fight against it. 

Before we start, we need to honestly look at our own privilege.  When you are exploring a story about injustice, it is easy to identify with the victim—and to condemn the people who participated in or perpetuated the injustice.  But don’t let that feeling unfairly excuse you from recognizing the plight of those around you.  Maybe you are part of the ethnic majority.   Maybe your gender receives more respect and benefit.  Maybe, even though you are not rich, you have more resources than those around you.  All of you are educationally privileged.  You have university degrees, and now you are receiving a graduate degree in America.  What are you going to do with your power?  What are you going to do with the power that comes to you because of your ethnicity, or gender, or money, or wealth, or education? 

It is not easy for me to talk about racial prejudice in America.  Most of my family lived in the west during the civil war and they were not involved.  But my ancestors who lived in the east fought for the South.  They fought against America and for slavery.  The religion that I grew up in took a very long time to recognize the civil rights movement—and perpetuated discrimination against black people.  I am white.  I benefit from that in America.  It is not easy for me to talk about injustice for black people when I benefit from a system that perpetuates it. 

But keeping silent, and just moving on, and just talking about technical reform is a poor choice.  It is important to do things that are personally uncomfortable to stand up against injustice.  And so we will be approaching some of the most sensitive topics in American history.  If you have questions or concerns, please share them.”

And right towards the end of the intro, the magnitude of this hit me.  Both the terribleness of the history I was about to talk about, but also about the transcendent courage of the abolitionists and civil rights workers that we’re talking about.  And because my tear ducts are connected to my heart strings I got choked up.  And stopped.  And then finished in a shaky voice.  I hope my “professoriness” wasn’t compromised, but it’s probably okay even if it was.

I’ve been watching the PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize” to get ready for these classes.  I’ve found a few new heroes and rediscovered some old ones:  Thurgood Marshall, Diane Nash, Constance Baker Motley, and, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

What about you?  Who are the champions of justice that you admire?  Why?


  1. Karen, wow. Thanks.

    Closer to home, I’d say Darius Gray.

  2. Malala Yousafzai.

  3. Thank you for stating the impacts of white privilege, and why it is so important that we talk about it, and recognize its impact in our lives.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Those are some very lucky students.

  5. I did a report on Harriet Tubman in elementary school and I still feel today about her like I do the prophets and pioneers. Like Esther, she was born at ‘such a time as this’ to do such a great work. I know she was led by God.

  6. To add a Mormon angle: At the same time that American judges were declaring that “there is no law for Mormons,” meaning that American law had no obligation to protect the lives and oroperty of Mormons, British judges seemed, without known exception, to believe in the rule of law and grant Mormons the same protection as any other British subjects. That doesn’t mean that individual Englishmen did not abuse Mormons — they certainly did — but once a matter was brought before the courts, the rule of law seemed to unfailingly prevail

  7. Thaddeus Stevens, a champion of more than just abolition, but true equality of the races during and after the civil war, when even his president had reservations about real equal rights, an advocate for religious freedom, and and proponent of free public education.

  8. William Wilberforce

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    hinduFriend, if you’ll reread the OP, you’ll see that the class is specifically on American history and U.S. legal systems, and so the focus described in the OP is entirely appropriate.

  10. Powerful post Karen! Thanks for sharing and giving me some good food for thought today.

  11. Thanks for this post.

    A few of my “champions of justice”:
    Malcolm X
    John Lewis
    Theodore Hesburgh
    Helmuth Huebener
    Dorothy Day
    John Paul Lederach
    Pope Francis
    …so many others

  12. E.D. Morel

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