Intro: Sorting through the countless files in the Google drive, I began logging and transcribing each of the audio files in the folder. It was the first week of my fellowship with United Women of Color – a nonprofit dedicated to community-based solutions for racialized violence in my hometown of Huntsville, Alabama.
UWOC was my latest attempt at identifying the needs in my community and actively working to supplement the gaps. Law school was the end goal, and meaningful civic engagement would allow me to identify the areas of law I wanted to practice, and prepare for long-term advocacy in the legal field.
The audio files contained various interviews of Black and white families sharing their perspective on race-relations in 2021. My supervisor had given me little information on the content of the interviews – only that the transcriptions and summaries would be presented to the Huntsville City Council in a case against the Huntsville Police Department. I clicked on the file labeled “Ava 1” and began typing short descriptions as the audio played:
“Woman says that in everyday life she felt safe when seeing police officers in the community: she had no reason to be nervous, never felt like they had any ill will or malice.
Woman describes seeing police officers at a protest heavily armed like they were about to ‘invade.’ ‘impending doom.’ ‘It felt scary and it felt like I couldn’t trust them-’
Before the minute-long interview could end, a realization washed over me: The protest “Ava” was recounting, was the same demonstration I attended a year and a half ago.
Brief Background: The morning of the protest, I told my cousin, a former parole officer, that I didn’t plan on attending. It wasn’t because I didn’t believe in the cause – but, rather, I felt better suited to engage in alternative forms of activism. That summer, I had edited 12 poignant articles highlighting the racial justice movement for the limited-edition summer issue of Alice, interned for a New York politician with projects focused on COVID-19 healthcare equity, and participated in a Pre-Law Program. Surely, most of this involvement allowed me a “rain-check” from this potentially dangerous protest. Yet, there was a lingering sentiment of guilt that accompanied my declaration that I was staying home.
My father, born and raised in Monroeville Alabama, to a farmer and housewife, was 62 years old when I was born. Throughout his life, he advocated for Black families of fallen WW2 veterans, served as a magistrate, marched for civil rights on Bloody Sunday, and eventually, became an Organic Chemistry professor at Alabama A&M University.
Only a year after his untimely death, the more exciting stories of his activism contributed to an overwhelming pressure to advocate for racial justice like he did: loudly and on the front lines.
Moreover, as his sole offspring, I had a responsibility to continue his legacy. With this in mind, I threw together a makeshift poster, organized a carpool, and headed downtown.
Despite being entirely nonviolent, the protest ended in the brutal tear gassing of several hundred protesters. Even with 20 years of racialized harassment under my belt, I always said that the country my father described was an America I didn’t know. The chaos that ensued on that foggy Wednesday evening served as a terrifying introduction to that America.
Reflection: My attendance was fueled by a desire to advocate for racial justice as he did, but criminal justice law was traumatizing and heavy for me. My undergraduate research featuring true cases of Black, underage human trafficking survivors was rewarding, yet horrifyingly memorable.
Post-protest, I reflected on my academic journey up to that point. On my quest to make a difference, I had – albeit unintentionally – created a self-imposed monolith about what it meant to combat racial injustice. One composed solely of dramatically leading protests and sit-ins, but excluded creative writing, working for nonprofits in my community, and shamelessly pursuing a field where I am drastically underrepresented.
Essentially, I didn’t have to protest to join the fight against anti-blackness. Similarly, I don’t have to practice criminal justice law, to advocate for racial equity in the legal field.
Further, when analyzing my father’s history, I had overlooked his most impactful and lengthy form of activism: his 40 years as an Organic Chemistry professor. Throughout my childhood, I perceived the highlights of his activism to have been the ones recorded in the history books. Yet, the Black graduates he inspired in his decades of teaching are living, breathing, examples of how academic empowerment can be the biggest blow to white supremacy.
Conclusion: Like that summer, my fellowship soon came to an end. However, like parting gifts, I treasured the lessons they left for me: There are countless ways to advocate for racial justice – all equally impactful. Racial inequities in healthcare or family law are equally as important as racial inequities in policing and incarceration.
Whether it’s representing Black entrepreneurs cheated by predatory legal agreements in contract law, or protecting Black creators in intellectual property, the legal field I choose will advance the values my father championed. In doing so, reminding others of a reality that myself, “Ava”, and countless Black Americans know all too well – the law is a lived experience.