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Civil rights lawyers discuss careers at McDaniel College

The fountain of the McTeer-Zepp Plaza on the campus of McDaniel College in Westminster Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015.
The fountain of the McTeer-Zepp Plaza on the campus of McDaniel College in Westminster Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015. (DYLAN SLAGLE/STAFF PHOTO / Carroll County Times)

Civil rights lawyers and activists James Bell and C. Victor McTeer took the stage at McDaniel College on Thursday night to discuss their lives, careers and the ways racist structures of oppression have evolved over the decades as part of the Ira G. Zepp Jr. Memorial Lecture.

Roger Casey, president of McDaniel College, hosted the conversation and opened the evening by asking the two men to describe the experiences that led them to activism.

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McTeer, a 1969 alumnus of then-Western Maryland College (now McDaniel), was one of the first African-American students ever admitted to the college. He said to this day, he is still asked why he decided to attend a predominantly white school.

"When you're one of two among 800, you learn real fast that you're different. Sometimes you learn in ways that are unpleasant," McTeer said. "It taught me that if I got through four years here, I was ready for the big leagues of racism."

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After graduating from Western Maryland, McTeer attended Rutgers School of Law, before moving to the Mississippi Delta to work as an activist lawyer. Throughout his career, McTeer represented people in cases involving voting rights, employment discrimination, housing discrimination and anti-smoking cases.

McDaniel College historian James E. Lightner will serve as commencement speaker next month, the college announced. Lightner, who has served the college for five decades as a 1959 alumnus, professor emeritus of mathematics and current trustee, will speak at the college's 147th commencement at 10 a.m. May 20.

Bell, who received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from McDaniel in 2016, founded the W. Haywood Burns Institute, dedicated to improving the lives of youth of color and poor youth, and leads the Community Justice Network for Youth.

He said his career path was guided by his early life, which was split between living in the South during the school year and spending his summers in New York City with his grandparents.

"One day, I'm in Jim Crow, the next day I'm at Macy's on 34th Street in Manhattan, and it was an incredible thing to watch structurally how America dealt with its own racist sin, and basically how it was never dealt with," Bell said.

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Bell said in the South, they dealt with structural hate, where they lived as second-class citizens due to legal segregation, but were able to enjoy interpersonal relationships with white community members with whom they shared neighborhoods and culture. In the North, though they were structurally equal to white residents, they had to deal with interpersonal hatred from people who wanted nothing to do with them. He said the legacy of these histories continues to this day.

"How in America do you get equity and fair treatment in a place that its foundations are held up by notions of structural oppression," Bell said. "I think for all Americans who think we are post racial, I would invite you to just kind of get woke."

The two then discussed the most important or meaningful cases of their careers.

Bell told the story of the prison system in Kentucky, which had no youth facilities, so children were kept at an adult facility. Bell advocated on behalf of a black youth who was being held in solitary confinement in the mostly white facility, while those accused of more serious crimes were able to serve in the general population. Bell said he was able to get state relief for the youth.

McTeer told of a 1981 case which won the first-ever monetary damage against a faction of the Ku Klux Klan. In the case, robed members of the KKK shot at five black women with a sawed-off shotgun, injuring one. McTeer said the members got off under the argument that "boys will be boys," leading to the case being raised to a federal jury. After aiming the shotgun at the jury and pulling the trigger to exemplify the terror the women experienced, the women were awarded $535,000, the largest civil rights settlement in America at the time.

Bell said the most pressing civil rights issue of our time are issues of income inequality and equity. He was careful to distinguish equity from equality.

"We can all be equal and have nothing," Bell said. "But equity is giving all of us in civil society similar options regardless of our status."

McTeer invited the audience to take stock of their communities and make a stand whenever the opportunity presents itself.

"So where do you stand with your people? What happens when you go to church and the preacher starts standing there and railing about the dangers of the community of Owings Mills and that element there?" McTeer said.

"How many of you dare to look at someone in your life when they made a foul comment and say that was racist? You don't have to be black and say it — you can be white and say it, too. That's the test."

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