There is a way of teaching history that treats the past as a thing that happened a long time ago. I’ve been in classrooms that taught Brown v. Board of Education and showed the accompanying black and white pictures — it felt so far removed from my elementary school concerns that I cared much more about what would be served for lunch that day.
There’s also a way of teaching history that treats the past as the thing that frames our present — rather than seeing Brown v. Board as that thing that happened in 1965, maybe I’d have been more interested if it was explicitly said that I was part of only the second generation of kids participating in the experiment of attending desegregated public schools. That little girl who was the subject of that iconic desegregationist school girl picture? Ruby Bridges? It didn’t even click in my child brain that she was an actual person! Yeah, it would have felt much closer to home if the teacher elaborated that she was still alive and just about my aunt’s age. Thinking about history in this way, it makes me feel lucky to be able to witness some of the ways that our history has changed for the better.
From the Equal Justice Initiative:
Kyra Harris Bolden was sworn in Sunday as the first Black woman to serve on the Michigan Supreme Court in its history…Ms. Bolden, who at 34 is also the youngest Michigan Supreme Court justice, told CNN that it was surreal to be appointed to the state’s highest court.
She explained that her family history drove her to attend law school at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. She felt a need to be part of the justice system, she said—a system that failed her family after the 1939 lynching of her great-grandfather, Jesse Lee Bond.
Lynching, of course, is another one of those things that changes depending on how you think about it. If you think about lynching as a way of killing people with rope and a tree, it feels like a long gone moment of shame in our past. But if you think about lynching as what it actually is — the violent punishment or execution, without due process, for real or alleged crimes — you don’t need to go back to Ida B. Wells’ The Red Record to read about lynchings. You could just as easily read the news coverage about Ahmaud Arbery. Strikingly, the set of legal circumstances surrounding Arbery’s attempt at getting justice could have gone much like Justice Bolden’s forefather’s.
Jesse Lee Bond was just 20 years old when he was lynched in broad daylight on April 28, 1939, in the town square in Arlington, Tennessee.
His nephew, Ronald Morris, told ABC news that the white owner of the SY Wilson feed store became angry with Mr. Bond because he asked for a receipt for the planting supplies he purchased.
Several white men shot Mr. Bond, then “took him, dragged him, castrated him, and stuck him out in the Hatchie river,” Mr. Morris said.
Two men tried for Mr. Bond’s murder were acquitted by an all-white jury. “We know who did it,” Mr. Morris said. “They knew who did it. The sheriff knew who did it. Everybody knew who did it. They covered it up.”
While the transgressions of asking for a receipt and going for a morning jog are different, being shot over it and having law enforcers cover it up is not. Thankfully, the prosecutor that tried to cover up Arbery’s lynching was indicted for her interference. While it is not a foolproof solution, my hope is that diversifying the judiciary with talented individuals who have firsthand knowledge of how horrific and pervasive racial-based terrors like lynching are will make it easier for Americans to find equality and justice under the law. Honestly, anything is better than having judges who gave children prison records over fabricated crimes. It is part of the reason that folks like Martin Luther King III and Al Sharpton have been pushing for the diversification of the judiciary for quite some time now. We still have a way to go.
Ms. Bolden said her journey “from lynching to law school, from injustice to Justice,” is not enough to repair this history of racial inequality and injustice. “We still have to work hard to try to break down these barriers,” she said, noting that there has never been a Black woman governor in the U.S…Like last year’s swearing in of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, Ms. Bolden said her appointment demonstrates to children, including her newborn daughter, what is possible.
It is so much easier to pay attention to history when you feel like your place in it matters. Thank you for inspiring us, Justice Bolden!
Chris Williams became a social media manager and assistant editor for Above the Law in June 2021. Prior to joining the staff, he moonlighted as a minor Memelord™ in the Facebook group Law School Memes for Edgy T14s. He endured Missouri long enough to graduate from Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. He is a former boatbuilder who cannot swim, a published author on critical race theory, philosophy, and humor, and has a love for cycling that occasionally annoys his peers. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and by tweet at @WritesForRent.