Black History Month began as Negro History Week, the second week
in February, in 1962. The week was selected because the birthdays
of Abraham Lincoln and Fredrick Douglass occurred during that time
frame, and both of these individuals clearly had a profound effect
on the lives of African-American people. Almost 50 years later, we
still have a long way to go to educate ourselves and our children
about the importance of black history in our country.
As Gov. Deval Patrick stated during his recent speech at a
Massachusetts Bar Foundation dinner commemorating its 45th
anniversary, we as lawyers know that making justice happen every
day is part of our job description. We should also be particularly
interested in the African-American experience in the courts in
Massachusetts over the last 300 years. It seems to me that this
gets to the very core of what justice is about - by understanding
this historic struggle, we come to understand more of the nature of
justice, both in historic times as well as our own time.
Several weeks ago, the MBA was delighted to co-sponsor a
reception celebrating the re-opening of the "Long Road to Justice"
exhibit in the Edward Brooke Courthouse in Boston. If you haven't
seen it yet, Black History Month is a perfect time to go. This
museum-quality exhibit is free and open to the public, right in the
atrium of the courthouse. The exhibit documents the experience for
African-Americans in both the civil and criminal justice system in
Massachusetts from the time of slavery to the present. It is
sponsored by the Ruffin Society and the result of significant hard
work and visionary thinking by the Hon. Julian T. Houston (ret.)
At the exhibit, you will learn how Massachusetts courts dealt
with the issue of whether freed slaves could serve as jurors,
testify as witnesses or be litigants themselves. You will learn
about groundbreaking cases in Massachusetts that dealt with the
rights of African-Americans. You will learn about the first,
trailblazing black lawyers and judges in our commonwealth.
As Edward Said, a literary scholar and activist, wrote in
"Even if one is not [excluded from the justice system], it is
still possible to think as one [who has been], to imagine and
investigate in spite of barriers, and always to move … towards the
margins, where you see things that are usually lost on minds that
have never traveled beyond the conventional and comfortable."
It is exhibits like the "Long Road to Justice" that help those
of us living now, in these times, to imagine and investigate these
There is something about these brave people's struggle for
justice in the face of such overwhelming circumstances that is at
the heart of the human experience. If we commit to learning more
about this ongoing struggle for justice and equality during Black
History Month, it will be a month well spent. In my view, this is
as important as it gets.