The Howard University School of Law has an illustrious civil rights history, evidenced by portraits of well-known judges, politicians and business people who are alumni along the school walls. One such alumnus, Thurgood Marshall, was head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and chief attorney for plaintiffs in the landmark Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka case.
Now the law school has created the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center, headed by Justin Hansford, an associate professor at the school who will serve as the center’s executive director.
Hansford, a native Washingtonian, Howard University and Georgetown University Law School alumnus, came home to Howard to start the Civil Rights Center after spending time in St. Louis and Ferguson, Mo. He was an associate professor at Saint Louis University Law School, but he also was protesting and representing protesters in Ferguson, including the family of Michael Brown, a Black teen who was fatally shot in 2014 during an altercation with a police officer. His death led to protests in Ferguson and in other cities.
Hansford said his protests and advocacy role in the Michael Brown incident did not sit well with the higher-ups at Saint Louis Law School.
“That was unpopular in St. Louis,” Hansford said. “Some of the people at the law school felt I was taking Mike Brown’s side. I was supposed to be neutral as a professor.”
The tense work environment at Saint Louis Law School took a positive turn for Hansford. He left that law school for a teaching position at the Harvard University Law School, which led to a teaching position at Georgetown University Law School, then to the Civil Rights Center at Howard.
Hansford described the center as a working blend of civil and human rights.
“I’m not someone who believes litigation is the answer,” he said about the direction of the center. “I believe that to create social change, you have to go beyond the courtroom. You have to engage in organizing, policy approaches, and you have to change public opinion.”
Danielle Holley-Walker, dean of the Howard law school, said she wants to ensure the center functions as a community-based operation that recognizes Howard’s past and future work.
“Howard is the home of civil rights laws,” she said. “All of the major civil rights cases ever decided by the U.S. Supreme Court started with lawyers that graduated from this law school. If you don’t talk about your legacy and how you’re building on that legacy, pretty soon that legacy may die.”
By engaging in community-based work, the center plans to expand the law school’s clinics on civil rights, fair housing, child welfare/family justice, investor justice and education, and intellectual property and trademark. The center has three components: litigation to represent citizens on legal actions, public policy work where law students research and testify for legislative change, and a think tank where academics and thought leaders come to the law school to discuss civil and human rights topics.
Howard law students are actively involved in the center’s work on current civil rights issues. Second-year law student Kaisha Penn is a clinic staffer working directly on human and civil rights issues. One current clinic project, research of successful reparations cases in the U.S., will link with another clinic initiative in which Howard law students are contributing to a resource toolkit to help others work on securing reparations from institutions or individuals.
Elijah Porter, another second-year law student at Howard, is editor-in-chief of the university’s Human and Civil Rights Law Review. The review publishes the HCR Forum, a series of blogs posted throughout the year with real-time analyses of civil and human rights legal proceedings that the public can access.
Law students will visit schools to conduct “Know Your Rights” sessions. Through the center, Howard law students also will use social media as a whistleblower tool to inform the public about activities that can infringe on civil liberties.
Hansford said he desires to bring the resources of the center to neighborhoods in the District and suburban communities, particularly high school students in Ward 8. Some of his ideas for the center are to educate high school students about their human rights so that they have a sense of empowerment. He also wants to bring public and charter school students to the Howard campus to meet law students at the center.
“We want to engage Washington, D.C., and the entire area in our work of trying to create social change,” Hansford said. “We want to bring in scholars, advocates, local and national lawyers, nonprofit legal organizations and other groups to see [Howard’s law school] is breaking new ground. That’s our agenda. I want us to get big wins that are tangible and that open people’s minds.”