The following story is from the November 2005 issue of Harvard Law Today.
After Hurricane Katrina, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama ’91 challenged black alumni to ask, “Are we doing everything we can?”
The 2005 celebration of Black Alumni, held at HLS in mid-September, was the second chapter in a story that began five years earlier. Sharon E. Jones ’82 remembers the excitement she and other participants felt in 2000 during the first Celebration of Black Alumni: a sense that they were making history. This time, said Jones, who co-chaired the 2005 celebration with Neil Brown ’78 (’79), although the excitement was there, “there was more of a focus on ‘Where do we go from here?’”(view webcast here)
That focus was reflected in the event’s theme: “Promises to Keep: Challenges and Opportunities in the 21st Century.” The celebration drew more than 1,000 participants—many of the country’s top black lawyers working in settings ranging from law firms to corporations to nongovernmental organizations and academia. Substantive discussions occurred in sessions on topics such as “Strategies to Survive and Thrive in Large Law Firms” and “Promises to Keep: Serving the Public Interest” .
But a celebratory tone was also evident throughout, starting the day before the event began, with the dedication of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, named after the black civil rights lawyer and HLS graduate who laid the legal groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education. During the weekend, black luminaries who graduated from HLS were recognized for their contributions. They included 93-year-old George Leighton ’43 (’46), former U.S. district judge for the northern district of Illinois, who is still practicing law with the Chicago firm Neal & Leroy.
The star of the weekend—who sold out the Sept. 17 Harvard Law School Association Award Luncheon and attracted crowds of students and others outside the entrance to the Holmes Field tent where it was taking place, and in several overflow rooms—was U.S. Sen. Barack H. Obama ’91. Obama, the first black president of the Law Review, received the HLSA Award for his commitment to public service, an honor traditionally bestowed decades after graduation.
Dean Elena Kagan ’86 presented Obama with the award. She has known him since their days together at the University of Chicago Law School, where she was a professor and he was an adjunct professor. Introducing Obama at the alumni gathering, she referred to his now-famous speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July 2004.
“Barack spoke, in that convention speech, of ‘the audacity of hope,’” Kagan said. “Barack, Senator Obama, you give so many of us hope—hope in our political life, hope in our country and hope in the future.”
In his own remarks, Obama focused in part on governmental failures revealed by Hurricane Katrina. He said that he was angered by the “achingly slow” response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But he told the audience that criticizing the Bush administration or the Republican Congress was an insufficient answer. “The truth is, we haven’t been entirely on the case either,” he said. “We’ve been a little complacent. We haven’t displayed the kind of cool, focused outrage that Charles Hamilton Houston displayed when the calamities of Jim Crow were occurring around him. In fact, our anger at Bush and the administration lets us off the hook. It allows us to say, ‘Well, I didn’t vote for him. I wrote John Kerry a check, so it’s not my problem.’ But of course it is our problem.”
Hurricane Katrina—which had struck only two weeks earlier—and related issues of social inequities came up in discussions throughout the event. In a plenary session, “Lawyers as Leaders: Charting the Course of Corporate America,” participants seemed to agree that the corporate world needs to devote greater energy to rectifying social problems. “I don’t think the purpose of the corporation is just to make money,” said Adebayo O. Ogunlesi ’79, executive vice chairman and chief client officer of Credit Suisse First Boston. He argued that focusing on short-term profit is not only morally and ethically wrong, but bad long-term business as well.
During another panel, “A Global Commitment: The Power and Influence of HLS Alumni,” Deborah C. Wright ’84, chairman, president and CEO of Carver Bank Corp. Inc., in Harlem, said she thought Hurricane Katrina revealed “how weak the private sector is in our central cities, the wealth gap, the talent gap,” and suggested that black HLS alumni find ways to strengthen American inner cities financially. “The reality is that a huge base of our people are in the inner cities, and they need us to focus on every possible way that we can to get first-class resources and talent in there. If we don’t do it, I’m not sure who will. So at the end of the day, I think it’s our responsibility.”
In the same session, David Lammy LL.M. ’97, Member of Parliament and minister for culture in the United Kingdom, said one of the things that Katrina revealed to the rest of the world was a “paradox” about black America. “I think that we have fooled ourselves into a false sense of security,” he said. “When we see images of Oprah and Denzel Washington and Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, when you hear about a group of people coming together like this—the people just in this room—we forget about the nature of poverty in America and the world. The images from New Orleans have brought back to the entire world the fight that you had in the 1960s for civil rights. They have come back to remind us that there is more to do.”
That reminder reverberated throughout the Celebration of Black Alumni. Obama concluded his speech by echoing words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends toward justice. But it doesn’t bend on its own. It bends because each of us—Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall and John Lewis and all of you—puts your hand on the arc and you bend it in the direction of justice. That’s our task. That’s what we must do.”
By Dick Dahl