New Howard Law Center for Civil Rights Hosts Interest Meeting for Undergrads

By Anthony Brown, Howard University News Service

Washington D.C.– Howard Law’s Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center held an event to recruit undergraduate “student volunteers” on the university’s main campus last Tuesday. The meeting’s advertisement noted “all students welcomed.” 

“Tonight was an orientation for the main campus,” Justin Hansford, the center’s executive director, said. “Our goal is to make sure that the center doesn’t stay hidden in the law school. We want the entire campus to feel a part of this process, especially the undergrads.”

The center (approved in 2017) was established to “celebrate and extend the legacy of Howard University School of Law as the epicenter for civil rights litigation and policy work,” according to the school’s website. Once in operation, it will be dedicated to “the study and practice of civil rights, human rights, racial justice and the law.”

“This is a historic moment for our law school and the University, and one that was many years in the making,” Dean Danielle Holley-Walker said in the same article. “Howard University will build on Thurgood Marshall’s legacy.”

The school is known for creating the strategy behind Marshall’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.  

Ajani Smith-Washington, a freshman leader of last week’s event, said the center’s focus on human rights caught his attention, and propelled him and his fellow student leaders to “set up an interest meeting to get more undergraduates involved in the work that the center is going to be doing.”  The work will revolve around three main pillars – “advocacy, public engagement and intellectual engagement,” he added. 

“There wasn’t a huge turnout, but the people who did were really excited about it,” said student leader Taylor Roper. The Illinois native talked to students who said that they would tell their friends, and were excited that all students and majors were welcome. “Based on the reaction, I would say it was a very effective meeting,” she said. “I can’t wait to see everything the Center will offer and how it will help the Howard community and the surrounding area.” 

Hansford, co-author of the Ferguson to Geneva shadow report following the death of Mike Brown, joined the Howard law faculty after positions at Harvard University, Georgetown University and Saint Louis University. The associate professor of law received his B.A at Howard University before he became a Fulbright Scholar, studying the legal career of Nelson Mandela.  

In 2016, Hansford wrote a proposal for the center and pitched it to the Howard law faculty. It detailed a civil rights center organized as a legal hub, integrated into the community and connected to broader social justice movements. 

“A center that’s focused on human rights at Howard means more to black people around the country and around the world than one at any PWI (predominantly white institution) would. It’s a very special opportunity,” Hansford said. “Many law schools don’t have a civil and human rights clinic, let alone a civil and human rights center. We’re doing both under the banner of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center.”

With an office already established on Howard’s law campus, Hansford emphasized the center’s goal is to be “interdisciplinary and interconnected” with the main campus, and to incorporate as many undergraduates as possible. “This project is designed to help them to feel the power of their voice and to develop it, and do it for the cause of human and civil rights. We need their voice,” he said.

While there are other places on campus where students can learn about civil and human rights – Department of Afro-American Studies and the Ralph J. Bunche International Affairs Center – the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center will be the only place solely dedicated to teaching students how to participate and to understand the law together.   

Overall, last week’s orientation was meant to acquaint students with what the center is expecting to accomplish in the months and years to come, and to get them excited about it. 

“Be the change they want to see in their community and on their campus.”  Carmen Crusoe, a 20-year-old sophomore, said. The student leader helped organize the event, and hoped that her peers will, “[learn] how to take their passion for social justice and turn it into action.” 

The event was completely student lead by all underclassmen. The center can be contacted at Thurgoodmarshallcenter@law.howard.edu 

Hopefully, the undergraduate student body will become more engaged and more interested in law school, and their excitement and passion will infuse positive energy into the law campus and create a “mutual uplift” Hansford said. “It’ll do immeasurable good in building social capital on Howard’s campus.”