The students and young lawyers need more, they demand more, and lawyer-leadership must mean more…
Professor Brooklyn Sawyers Belk
Visiting Professor & Lecturer as Advocate in Residence
Tyre Nichols was . . . a man, a citizen of the United States of America, a son, a father. Tyre was but is no more. Tyre was denied his constitutional rights to equal protection and due process.
Tyre suffered an unimaginable fate – death by beating – a slow, agonizing death that took three days to accomplish. Actually, unimaginable is likely the wrong word considering that others have reported suffering similar fates but have been denied the unasked – for fame and media attention and, therefore, we do not recognize them as household names.
Tyre was beaten to death. Many animal owners should and do treat their pets better than Tyre was treated. Tyre’s humanity, manhood, and citizenship – all – lost in a moment.
The result? I saw images of what used to be a man slumped against an automobile and later lying in a hospital bed so badly bruised and beaten that he was barely recognizable. I saw those images in real time in 2023. It reminded me of an image I had seen many times over the years. It reminded me of Emmett Till, not the full of life teenager, but the lifeless body of a mother’s child, who was no more and whose 14-year-old body laid in a casket in 1955 – the remnants of a summer vacation to the Jim Crow south.
Since 1955, a number of things have changed. Praise God: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is chief among those changed things.
But so much has not changed. I reach that conclusion, in part, because of the eerie similarities between the two bodies I saw; between the cries of Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley and RowVaughn Wells, two mothers ripped of their sons, and despite my best efforts, I am still clueless as to why.
I started celebrating African American History Month on February 1, 2023, differently than in prior years. I attended Tyre’s funeral. I drove across the state from East Tennessee to West Tennessee – from the part of the state that lacks the type of diversity that the other part of the state is known for. I drove to the place where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered 55 years earlier. I drove to the place where, as Reverend Al Sharpton noted during Tyre’s eulogy, men and women spoke, marched, and died so that Black men could have decades-old laws actually enforced so that Black people could get a job – such as the honor of working for the city of Memphis in, oh, I don’t know, . . . maybe law enforcement (because there was a time that Black men did not have the privilege to be charged with protecting and serving their city).
I went to that funeral for a number of reasons, two of which I will explore here. I am the mother of two little Black boys. Today, they are seen as cute, fun little boys, but it is not lost on me that someday, they will be Black men and some – not all – may despise them because of the darkness of the color of their skin, an immutable characteristic that they did not choose. I went because when Tyre called out for his mama, I thought of all the times my little boys call out for me, and I imagined how young Emmett may have cried out for his mama to no avail. I heard the cry, haunted by the sound, by the words, by my own human frailties – an inability to act.
Second, I went to the funeral because of a conversation I had with a Black male law student. This year, I chose to organize an African American History Month program for the University of Tennessee College of Law, where I proudly work and serve. I chose to organize a two-part African American History Symposium analyzing race in the United States Supreme Court in which students highlight research that they completed about the topic. I asked a Black male law student to participate. I think very highly of him and, now that I have known the young man over the years, I feel like I understand his plight in life. My feelings are based on the mutuality of experience knowing what it feels like to be the only one or one of few all – the -time. And I know what likely lies ahead for him. On one hand, he has the opportunity to serve in great jobs at unintegrated institutions, that is, until he crosses the doors’ threshold and, thus, enjoys the honor and privilege of being the first. On the other hand, that opportunity is juxtaposed with the weight and responsibility of being the first: the singularity, the solitude, the isolation, the invisibility, the doubt, the questions, the misidentification (as if his name is interchangeable with those of others), and the fear. Inextricably intertwined, the dualism of his next chapter, simultaneously provides amazing opportunities to serve and integrate and be a welcomed part of a meaningful profession, yet living the realities of always being on the outside looking inside to that which you strive so earnestly to belong.
When I asked the young student to participate in the program, he waited one day to answer, which was odd. During the wait, I wondered what was going on with him, assuming that it had to do with the busyness of the semester (which is what his initial email reply implied). But his written answer left something out. Deep in my soul, I could feel the absence of realness in his “oh, I am so busy” reply. So, I placed an unsolicited telephone call to him, during which he was more forthcoming with his feelings. He refused to participate. In sum, I heard that as a professor, I stand in the halls of the hallowed place where judges and other leaders of our profession are taught and matriculate to go on to interpret and apply the law. I teach, some may say preach, about one of my favorite documents, the United States Constitution, the document by which the figurative playing field of life is leveled, with a distinct emphasis on the 14th Amendment protections. I experience it as a living, breathing document by which I know that my life trajectory changed before I ever breathed air. I am thankful for the Constitution.
But the student could not reconcile that which I teach from books and judicial precedent as those things did not appear to have made a difference for Tyre on January 7, 2023. The student expressed, in sum, that to ask him to stand on a stage and educate others about material that is easily accessible to all to learn about American history – not Black history – but American history (because Black history is inextricably intertwined with American history) was too great a task for him to bear this year. The student could not talk about the equalizing effect of the law when he felt the weight of inequality having watched Tyre’s death-inducing beating and knowing that it could have been him.
I heard his cry as clear and loud as I heard Tyre cry out “mama!,” helpless to eradicate the student’s concerns. As a professor who uses the law as the tool to answer her student’s questions, I was helpless to reply to the young man.
Now, what do I do with that? If you are reading for answers, none follow.
If a lawyer is to lead, their actions must be louder than words. So, I acted by driving, sitting in the cold for hours, and then in an ornate church for hours, waiting for the gut-wrenching cries of a mama whose baby is never coming back, to then drive home, in eerie silence, left to my thoughts of inadequacies. I was a black nameless face at the funeral. I did not meet anyone new. I did not contribute in any meaningful way. I took up space on a church pew. The essence of nothingness.
However, symbolically, I did all that I knew to do in the moment. I showed up, albeit in name alone. I showed up. I listened to the eulogy, hoping to take something away that I could use in my own midnight wrestling, my deer-in-headlights moments when a student says something so raw and real that I have no response other than a worthless, “I am sorry, and I understand your decision.” My own when-the-student-becomes-the-teacher-and-I-become-the-student moment. My own, Wait! In Memphis?, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. laid down his life moment.
My place is normally behind the lectern, in a classroom or in a meeting room, sharing legal analysis and giving opinions. When writing, I try to end with takeaways rather than merely presenting a problem. But here, today, in writing this, I have no proposed solutions. My student made me see so clearly that my normal is just not enough. My place cannot be silence, it cannot be complacency, it cannot be denial, it cannot be a lack of empathy, it cannot be business as usual . . ., it cannot be “the Constitution provides.” Clear on what it cannot be, in all vulnerability and candor, I have no idea what composes the path to that which must be and where to go next. Having planned an African American History Month program, premised on a mostly all White student panel of presenters who volunteered to share their amazing projects that resulted from their semester-long research, and having gone to a funeral seeking answers and having found not even one, I know that leading as a lawyer requires something more. The students and young lawyers need more, they demand more, and lawyer-leadership must mean more than my pat answer “the Constitution provides,” one-day programs, and “I am sorry.” The answer to the question: “What is out collective response as lawyers who are leaders?” remains elusive, at least to me.