On Monday, as a part of the University of Michigan’s Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Symposium, more than 300 students and faculty attended a lecture by guest speaker James Forman Jr., a Yale University professor who drew his dialogue largely from his career as a public defender and his book, “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.”
Bayrex Martí, assistant dean for Student Life at the Law School, opened the event and provided several words on King’s life, emphasizing the need for continuous action.
“This is a day that we challenge instead of congratulate ourselves,” Martí said. “As others have stated, this is also a week in which the University celebrates the successes of African descendants for equality, while acknowledging the progress we still have to make to reach full equality and respect for all.”
Forman opened the discussion by highlighting his background and childhood in Georgia, explaining his experiences watching the growth of prisons and the increasing statistics that illustrate the high correlation between African American males and incarceration. He explained that mass incarceration has become a human rights crisis in the U.S., which led him to realize his calling as a public defender.
“That reality showed me the unfinished business of the civil rights movement,” Forman said.
Forman outlined the tumultuous relationship between Black communities and the government, reaffirming that the U.S. is still a country that has lived with slavery longer than it hasn’t. He said this institutionalized racism still shapes our government and, combined with limited allocation of resources, these factors have acted as detriments to socioeconomic development in Black communities.
He continued to point out, while African Americans have garnered more political representation, their power is mainly concentrated at a local level. Furthermore, in response to the many community issues presented by these representatives, a stronger stance on prosecution and police force has always been elected over the implementation of education policy or community revitalization. Forman provided a hypothetical scenario of a representative’s experience with crafting legislation to fight drug addiction as an example of this favoring of prosecution over education.
“Like so many Americans, he couldn’t think of the problem of an addict in a public space as anything other than a law enforcement problem, he couldn’t imagine it as a public health problem, as a social work problem, as a medical problem, as a treatment problem,” Forman said. “We have to cultivate our imaginations, and that means resisting the entrenched traditional impulses.”
Forman later focused on ways to move forward from these societally rooted issues, stressing finding individual methods to make a positive change is vital to a full community effort.
Forman’s uses his methodology in his teaching, he explained, as he leads a class made up of 10 incarcerated students and 10 Yale students. Among the many lessons that he learned through teaching this class, he found the reaffirmation of the need for mutual respect in communities and education, regardless of race or class.
“I don’t want to minimize the structural disadvantages that separate somebody who ends up at the University of Michigan versus somebody who ends up incarcerated, but I want to say that one of the things that influences what your future looks like is whether you are routinely told that you are smart, you are welcome, you have something to say versus if you are treated like you are the problem,” Forman said.
Law School student Madeleine Jennings said she had read Forman’s book before attending the event and it inspired her to pursue a career in law.
“I read the book and I’m going to be a public defender when I graduate,” Jennings said. “It’s always helpful and exciting to hear from people who have dedicated their career to doing that.”
LSA sophomore Teanna Sims said she was excited to attend the event to learn more about racial justice on the day off from classes.
“I came because it’s a really interesting event that U-M puts on, and I’m really happy to participate in it,” Sims said. “You know, we get the day off, and a lot of people would think about using it to sleep, but they put on so many great events such as the speaker today. Especially at a time like this, it’s great to get as much encouragement and inspiration as possible.”
According to Law School student Syeda Haider, she attended because of consistently great speakers at the previous Martin Luther King Jr. Day events she has attended in the past two years.
“The reason I came was to hear the really fantastic speakers on the cutting edge of racial and criminal justice issues, and I think I speak for a lot of Michigan Law students when I say that is something really close to our hearts, and what can we do in our capacities as future lawyers to think about these issues,” Haider said.