Kimberly Flowers: Hello and good evening. And thank you all for joining us tonight to discuss the role of racism in the U.S. Criminal Injustice System. Whether you are a Colby student, parent, alum, or anyone out there who is joining us, welcome. My name is Kimberly Flowers, and I’m the Executive Director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs here at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and I will be one of your hosts for tonight’s conversation. This is actually our last event of the semester for the Goldfarb Center, but this is not the last time we’ll be talking about this topic. We’ll be picking up this theme again next year as we continue to look into the issue of racial inequality and criminal justice reform. For those of you who enjoy tonight’s event and want to continue to follow Goldfarb’s event especially around this topic or others, be sure to sign up for our mailing list which you can do on our brand-new launched website goldfarbcenter.colby.edu or follow us on social media.
Before we begin, I just want to take a minute, of course, to say happy Veteran’s Day to our soldiers, both past and present, who have served our country including many members of my extended and personal family. Um, we owe you our thanks, and we owe you our freedom. Thank you very much.
Tonight, we have two Colby student moderators who will be joining me; Emmanuel Sogunle who’s the class of 2021. He is the parliamentarian for the go- Student Government Association Executive Board. He is President of the Colby African Society, and he is also a research intern for the Lunder Institute for American Art. Emmanuel plans on using his economics and education double major to build a career combating educational inequality and working to preserve education as a human – as a human right. We also have joining us tonight Grace Hillis of class of 2024. She’s a new representative on the Goldfarb Student Executive Board. Grace is a first-year student hailing from Hudson, Massachusetts, and she is working to increase student involv- involvement in public affairs because she believes everyone has the potential to promote positive change. Grace, I agree with you.
As an important reminder, this is all a conversation for you as well who are joining us. So we’ll be taking live questions from the audience at the end of the program, but feel free to make comment and add questions throughout in the YouTube chat function, um, below. Now, let’s talk about our speaker who I’m so excited about. It is such an honor for me to introduce Mr. Jeffrey Robinson. He has been fighting for racial justice and criminal justice reform as a trial lawyer for four decades. He is a renowned lawyer, but he is also a very dynamic speaker on racism in America. In 2015, he joined the ACLU as the deputy legal director to lead its criminal and racial justice work. Uh, he will soon be launching or releasing a documentary feature film called Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America of which I’m sure he’ll tell us a bit more about. When I was, um, looking up – or doing my homework on Jeff, I’m now a bit of a Jeff stalker. I’ve read everything he has written and watched everything he’s done because I’m quite fascinated by him and his leadership on this. Um, there’s a quote from the Who We Are website from Jeff that I just want to start with.
Jeff said, “When we talk about race, somebody is going to get their feelings hurt. Somebody is going to say things that come out in a way they didn’t really mean. It’s going to be messy. All of that is going to happen. Don’t worry about it.” Jeff, those are great words, and I just want to say thank you for joining us tonight. Thank you for leading us in this discussion. And to start, I would like for you to share with us your thoughts about how the role of race in the criminal justice system we have is so uniquely American. How did we get here as a country? Jeff, over to you.
Jeffery Robinson: Well, thank you very much; and to the Colby students and the audience, uh, I want to say good evening and thank you for being here. It’s a pleasure for me. I’m in Seattle, Washington, and that’s why it looks like there’s, uh, a little sun is still out the window. Uh, the question that you asked is a huge one, but I think it’s a good place to start a discussion because America’s experience with enslaving black people goes back at least to 1619. And the connection between that history and the criminal legal system – many people call it the criminal injustice system, the criminal justice system. I refer to it as the criminal legal system because whether it is fair or not, what is done to people in that system is legal under American law. And so if we think about it, if you use 1619 as a starting date, America has existed longer with slavery than without it; 246 years with slavery and 155 without it.
So stop and think about that for a minute, and if you say, “Well, you can’t really start that history until 1776 or 1789 when the Constitution is started because those other folks were the American colonies,” what I have to say to you is those were the same people starting the same families that lived in the exact same areas, and the colonies came to the table when the American colonial system was about to c- become the American constitutional system. And what the third – what the colonies in the south brought to the table was money because they had cotton, they had enslaved people, and they had a system of making money that was significant. And when they sat down at the table, they made it clear to the north, “You’ve got to give us some concessions. You’ve got to give use some assurances that we’re gonna get to keep this system of enslaving black people.” And so one of the things that I think is always important to remember is that in the document that founded our country, the Constitution, Article 2, Section 2, paragraph 3 says “No freedom for a runaway person.” We can talk later about how the – the word slave appears on the Constitution only once. They would use other acronyms, but Article 4, Section 2, paragraph 3 says, “A runaway enslaved person must be returned upon demand.” What that means is that the founding document of our country made black attempts at freedom illegal.
This was the beginning of the relationship between the criminal legal system and black Americans. So at the founding document we already have this tension that is in existence, and it goes back even further than that. When you look at the historians, they’ll tell you that modern day police departments evolved especially in the south from slave patrols. And you can find slave patrols going all the way back to 1705 in South Carolina. And so just understanding the beginnings of our country and how the law enforced the system of slavery. So if you ran away and were escaping, you know, who enforced that law that said you were property? Well, it was the legal system in America. And I’ll tell you a very short story, um, about an enslaved woman in 1856 who, uh, was put on trial for first degree murder. She and her husband and her daughter and their two children escape from there “owners” in Kentucky. They crossed the Ohio River at night on the ice in the middle of winter without knowing if the ice would crack and they would go to the bar- to the bottom. The United States Marshals arrested her the next day. And as they came into the home to arrest her in Ohio, she grabbed her daughter and she cut her daughters throat and killed her, and then she tried to kill her two sons, and the marshals got to her before she could do that.
When she was put on trial for murder — her name was Margaret Garner — when she was put on trial for murder, the case was dismissed because in any state in the union at that time in order to be tried for murder you had to kill a human being and what she killed was an enslaved being, so the charges were dismissed, and she was returned with her husband and their two sons to their “owners.” Some people asked, “Why did she kill her daughter first?” Because Margaret Garner’s mother was born after the man who owned her grandmother raped her, and Margaret Garner was born after her mother was raped by their white owners, and Margaret Garner’s daughter was born after she was raped by the white owners. She killed her daughter first because she knew what her daughter had coming. The law in America saw this as completely justifiable and so understanding where the criminal law developed and the values that it had because of u-America’s unique, uh, at least unique – unique in our sense, uh, involvement with enslaving black people. Uh, there has always been a connection between race and the criminal legal system. And the final thing I’ll say on this topic is many people think that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, and it didn’t. And the 13th Amendment is the only place in the Constitution where the word slavery appears.
In other places our – my ancestors were referred to as such persons or other words like that because the word slavery was harsh. The 13th Amendment says neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime shall exist in America. So the 13th Amendment specifically reserves slavery as legal for punishment of a crime. And we can look at the development of the criminal legal system from 1865 until today, and that has had a major impact. This is why there are 2.3 million people in jails and prisons in America. Forty percent of them –almost one million people — are black people. Either we are just criminal, more likely to commit a crime, less morally, uh, capable and involved in our communities or something else is going on. And I think if we look at our history, we can find out exactly what that something else is. So the – the – the – the law in the United States – the criminal law in the United States has always been inexorably tied to the issue of race.
Emmanuel Sogunle: Thank you so much, Jeff. Um, my name is Emmanuel, and I’m a senior here at Colby College. I think you are —
Jeffery Robinson: Congratulations, one more – y- one more semester and you’re, like, done.
Emmanuel Sogunle: Yeah, thank you. I think you articulate, like, beautifully how, like, the criminal justice system is so tied into racism, and you mentioned how, um, black people are disproportionally in the – incarcerated. So I wonder, um, what your thoughts on how recently a lot of states have legalized the marijuana use but there are still several people incarcerated for it. So how meaningful is that action alone and, like, what steps do you think would further get us to the equity we strive for? What the justice (indiscernible) for?
Jeffery Robinson: I – I was – I was listening carefully to what you said and – and – and – and the most important part of your question for me is how meaningful is that step alone? And alone, all it means is that in many states in America you can get high and you can’t get arrested for it. That’s all it means. If it is just legalization of marijuana alone. If we look at the history of how marijuana was used, and I want to give you, uh, a direct quote from John Ehrlichman, who was in the Nixon administration. And he was talking about their war on drugs and what was really behind it, and this is a direct quote. I’m going to turn my face a little bit because I want to read it directly. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black — the war meaning the Vietnam War — but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and the blacks with heroin and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.”
Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did. When you see America’s reaction to the opioid epidemic that we have been experiencing for a number of years, and you hear both republicans and democrats saying, “This can’t be a war against opioid addicts. Those are our children; a war against our children is an infanticide. This is a medical problem.” The criminal legal system can’t solve this problem. and I agree with all of those things. But I wonder whether those sentiments are expressed because for the last 15 years, 9 out of 10 new opioid addicts are white. And so we have the Nixon administration using marijuana and heroin, quite frankly, using drugs as a way to further a political agenda. That harm has been incredible. On 23rd and Union here in Seattle, there is a marijuana store called Uncle Ike’s Marijuana store, owned by a white man, and he is raking in the money hand over fist because it’s legal here in Washington. If I draw a circle one or two square miles around Uncle Ike’s store — which is an all-black neighborhood or a mostly black neighborhood — I can come up with at least a hundred people who cannot own a marijuana store because they have a prior conviction for selling marijuana.
So the – the – the legalization of marijuana, don’t get me wrong, it is an important step and a step that I believe is critical not just in states here and there, but I’m hoping that the Biden administration will take this up and just make it legal federally. But that’s not enough. Addressing the harm that – that these laws have caused is what has to be essential and there is at least one very easy way to do this. You have a program with these two policies. Number one, you tax the hell out of it and all the taxes go into the black community that has been damaged by these kind of drug laws. And number two, you set aside a number of licenses for people who have been convicted of, uh, of marijuana offenses to be able to get into this business, to own stores. ‘Cause think about it, who knows better how to run a marijuana store than somebody who sold marijuana before? Somebody who knows how to grow it, somebody who knows, uh, what’s associated with it. So there are ways that we can use the economic vehicle of opening an area for business that is going to bring millions of dollars into the people who are running that business. Why don’t we take that business and make sure that the vast majority of that money goes into the community that was most harmed by the laws that use to prohibit it.
So without that kind of thinking, I think as I said at the beginning, we’re just making it easier. It’s more than that. We’re not just making it easier for folks to get high. We are taking away reasons for police officers to confront somebody. So if marijuana is legal, arresting somebody for possession of marijuana is not something that police are going to be able do anymore, and that is significant. But I think your question goes deeper than that, and I think you’re talking about repair to communities. And we’ve got to have a business sense about how we can put capital into the communities that have been damaged.
Grace Hillis: Thank you, Jeff. Um, I think your answer was super interesting, and I have never considered the proposal that you suggested. Um, just so everyone knows, I’m Grace, and I’m a freshman and a member of the Goldfarb Student Executive Board. And my question ties back to your, um, introduction and how racism is ingrained within our laws and our Constitution. The murder of George – George Floyd was the catalyst for a series of protest not only across the United States but across the globe. And although it did not begin the conversation about the need for police reform, it certainly brought it to the forefront of our national dialogue. His death, however, occurred in – under very similar circumstances to many other victims of police brutality. In your opinion, what made George Floyd’s death different? Why do you think more Americans are finally listening or are they?
Jeffery Robinson: The short answer is yes, more Americans are listening. There is no question about it. So there are a couple things I want to say about that, Grace, ’cause that is a – that – that is a complicated question. Um, number one, if you go back to the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement, and you look at the demonstrations in both those movements, there were black people in the anti-Vietnam marches, but those marches were basically mostly all white people. And there were white people in the racial justice marches, but those marches were mostly black people. What you are seeing in America today has never occurred in our history. And what that is, is people of all different races coming together in a public demonstration that goes not just in large cities but tiny little towns and, uh – uh, small – small – much smaller places. You are seeing racial, gender, sexual identity, all kinds of diversity in these demonstrations and that I think is unique. But there’s a reason for that, and it’s not because George Floyd was unique. So many people have said, “Oh, my God. It’s not just George Floyd this year.”
You remember Ahmaud Arbery was killed in Alabama when he was jogging through a neighborhood doing nothing but jogging. And then there are, uh, people who had been killed since George Floyd. And – and so people have said I think, you know, “Oh, my God, look at this period of time. We’ve never seen anything like this before.” And I’m 64 years old. I was born in 1956 in Memphis, Tennessee. So I was 11 when King was assassinated in my hometown, and I can guarantee you America has seen this and much worse before. The issue is what you said in your question. Are more people seeing it? And the difference between the past and now is this: cell phones, surveillance cameras, people can broadcast in an instant something that’s happened. We actually saw in Minnesota a man being killed by police and his girlfriend there in the car as he is bleeding to death talking to people and broadcasting it live. That brings proximity.
I will say this, we’ve had a pandemic this year. And so when George Floyd was killed, what was unique about it is that America was at home, and we are in a generation that’s addicted — I – I know I say that not completely negatively, but it is kind of negative — we’re addicted to our screens, and there was no NBA on TNT to distract us. So people had to look for 8 minutes and 46 seconds at a black man being lynched. And the thing that was most frightening about that to me was the casual look on the officer’s face as he knelt on George Floyd’s neck. And if you remember that video, his hand never came near his gun because he knew nobody was going to stop him from doing what he was doing. So this kind of violence has happened in the black community since this country was formed, perpetrated by police officers. I’ve often said to people, um, there was a law that was passed by Virginia in 1667, and it said if an enslaved person is killed while resisting a master, it’s not a felony. It may have been 1669, one of those two years.
And I tell people that law is not on the books in any country or any state in this country. But you take the number of unarmed black people that have been killed by police in the last ten years, and you compare that number to number of police who have been prosecuted in those cases, and then you compare that number to the number of police who have been convicted of anything. That law may not be on the books, but it’s still in effect. And I guess we’ll see what happens in Minnesota when those police officers come to trial. So the thing that is different is video, audio, immediate presence when these things are happening. And, uh, there is a book written by a man named William Burroughs called Naked Lunch. It was written back in the 50s and 60s. Mr. Burroughs was part of what some people call the Beat Generation of writers. So William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and he and Kerouac came up with this titled Naked Lunch. When they were asked what does that title mean Burroughs said, “It’s that moment when everyone has to look at what is really on the end of their fork.” And America is having a naked lunch moment with policing, and it’s not going down very easily.
So there is a difference now in terms of what happened in the past, and it’s just that so many more people are seeing this. And so when a black person says, you know, “The police stopped me, and they beat me up for no reason,” in the past it was like “Well, you’re saying that, you’re probably exaggerating. Didn’t happen that way. You must have done something.” And now, we see video after video after video after video of this exact same kind of thing happening, sometimes ending up with the black person dead. And so America is having a naked lunch moment, and I think that is one of the different things. Uh, I – I want to say something though about, like, what we do about this because one of the things — and, you know, my group at the ACLU has been involved in this in the past — is like how do we change this? How do we change policing in America? And it has usually b- been by bringing lawsuits to attack police practices and then require changes in police departments — changes in the way they are trained, changes in the way that they do their jobs.
I just want to read to you all of the trainings that occurred in the Minneapolis Police Department before George Floyd was killed. Before he was killed, the entire department had procedural justice training, implicit or unconscious racial bias training, mindfulness training, de-escalation training, ban on warrior style policing training, early intervention to identify problematic officers, mental health crisis intervention training, and training on the reconciliation efforts in communities of color. How much more training are you going to give them before you reach the conclusion that the ACLU has reached, that policing in America is fundamentally broken. We are not advocating for policing to be abolished. I will say this though. Even those that advocate for abolishing the police, if you get past the tagline and you listen to the substance of what they’re saying, nobody is saying abolish the police tomorrow. Abolishing the police is a goal, but what the ACLU is currently saying — and this is a switch for us because we have seen how these trainings just don’t work.
What the ACLU is saying is that we need to divest and reinvest. We need to take money away from police departments and put it into the agencies that we’re always saying if only these agencies had some money maybe some of these problems would be solved. And one of the things we’re doing is helping people and cities across America start to analyze their city budgets ’cause I guarantee you, pick – throw – throw a dart at the map and pick out five cities in America and go and look at how much they spend on policing out of their entire city budget. It is huge. And the FBI statistics tell us that right now and for the past couple of years, violent crime accounts for ten percent of the arrests in America. So when you say, “Oh, my God. If we don’t have police, there’s going to be this free for all.” Part of that is just fear and ignorance. Ignorance meaning you have not familiarized yourself with the data on what does crime in America look like right now? And the fundamental question is: if violent crime is only ten percent of the arrests, then what are we arresting the other 90 percent of those people for? And why do we need so many police for that?
Last thing I want to say about this issue of funding, people will say — and I’ve seen it here in Seattle because there is a strong movement here in Seattle — to take money away from the policing budget. And one of the, uh, TV stations on their 11 o’clock news, they’ll show stories about three murders and then the newscast will come on and say, “And there’s a movement to defund the police in Seattle. We’ll be back after this message.” And what I want to say to that person is how many murders do police stop? Almost zero. Police respond after murders happen to try and catch the perpetrator. Police don’t prevent crime, and the best example of that are the stop and frisk programs that have been run across America. And let me be clear. When I say, “stop and frisk,” I mean a program where police officers go into a neighborhood and they stop people for no reason whatsoever. They get in their face, they pat them down, they see if they can find something, and they say, “Oh, this prevents crime.”
New York City was the best example. Over an eight- or nine-year period, the – the percentage was between 75 and 88 percent of all the people that they stopped were doing absolutely nothing illegal. They had nothing illegal on them. And of the people that had further police action — meaning they were finding things — what was interesting were they were finding more things among white people than among black people, but where do they do stop and frisk? In Harlem. You can’t prevent crime by harassing innocent people. No other neighborhood in America would accept that. I don’t know what the neighborhood is around Colby College, but if the police chief of that town came out and said, “We’re gonna start jacking people over and throwing you up against the wall and searching you ’cause we think – even if you haven’t done anything to make us think you’re suspicious, we just think that will lower crime and make everyone safer.” Nobody that lives in that area would tolerate that, and if they wouldn’t tolerate it, why should some other neighborhood have to tolerate it?
So I think we have to fundamentally rethink how policing in America works, what its real purposes are, and how we can keep each other safe and not have police departments that are, uh, quite frankly, uh, running out of control all across America because after George Floyd — and I’ll stop after this — after George Floyd was killed, you would have thought that that would have been a message to police departments all over America. You’ve got to stop this behavior and look at the number of people that have been killed since George Floyd. It’s a big problem, but there are answers, and we just have to be willing to do things differently.
Kimberly Flowers: Well, speaking of, uh, a moment in America and doing things differently, Jeff, we have to talk about the Presidential election of course. Um, so the – the – a couple of things I’ll say. One is, um, you know, you know, that this – this is our annual theme this year, and part of that is because in the spring we’re going to do a policy symposium where students submit policy papers on this issue and – and think through, you know, how public policy can – can address some of this. So my question to though of course is about the Biden-Harris administration. Um, they have made racial equality, police reform, and a focus on rehabilitation ver- over incarceration as some of their top policy priorities. I spent most of my career working in government or think- thinking about government, so I know that it’s – you can make these priorities but…
Jeffery Robinson: But you’re going, “I’m not so sure.”
Kimberly Flowers: …taking them into action is sometimes tough because it’s got to be you know, more than just the administration. My question to you is how hopeful are you that the Biden-Harris administration can enact real change? And what are some things that you would want them to focus on first in terms of legislation and public policy?
Jeffery Robinson: If you had asked me this question six years ago, I would have given you a very, very different answer. I would have talked about individual kinds of laws that could be passed, and those kinds of laws are very important. But I want to give you an example, and part of this is just, like, the need to go behind what politicians say. President Trump has continually said that nobody else could get criminal justice reform done, and he got it done. What he got done was passing a law called the First Step Act. That law has benefited about 6,000 people who have either gotten out of jail or prison or had their sentences reduced, and that is wonderful. That’s not criminal justice reform. We are talking 2.3 million people in prison. The number of people that have been impacted by the First Step Act as a percentage of the number of people in prison, the percentage is 0.00246 percent. That is not criminal justice reform, I’m sorry.
Criminal justice reform has to be something significant. And so what I have come to believe is that the most significant piece of legislation that Biden could champion is H.R.40, the bill that would establish a commission to study the issue of reparations to Black Americans for slavery and its vestiges. And unlike the original bill which was just a study bill, this bill requires the permission to make specific recommendations to Congress for legislation — could be executive orders, could be administrative rule changes — and the commission is to address racism as a whole in America. Because one of the things that I have come to understand is that if I had a magic wand and I could wave it and fix the entire criminal legal system tomorrow and empty the jails and prisons, if I did nothing else, we’ll fill those jails and prisons right back up with the exact same people that are in them now because we got to address issues about the disparities in health care, in education, in every social aspect of life. And this commission that would be set up by H.R.40, that’s what so beautiful about it. It will have experts in all kinds of areas, the criminal legal system. It will have experts in healthcare. It will have experts in education. It will have experts in jobs.
As I’ve been going around talking about H.R.40, one of the things that I have been saying is do you – if you look at the infrastructure of America, it’s falling apart. It has to be rebuilt. That’s something that will benefit all of America and H.R.40 with the history of racism behind it would not be subject to be affirmative action, uh – uh, kind of attacks that have come before. And please put a star on that ’cause I want to say something about affirmative action before I finish. But by having a mult- multidisciplinary committee or – or a commission that’s going to look at how all of these issues intersect with each other — for example, why is it that black and brown communities have the highest rate of COVID deaths? Well, because we have the most preexisting conditions. Well why do we have those preexisting conditions? And when you look at the rationalized history of healthcare delivery in the United States, you would be shocked and amazed. The fact that we don’t know this history doesn’t mean it’s not there. This history is hidden, but it is hidden in plain sight. And so when I came to the realization that fixing the entire criminal justice system would do nothing about the wealth gap in America, most white families have a – a net worth as much as 16 black families combined.
Is that because we just don’t know how to start businesses or we’re not willing to work hard for our children and try and save money? Jared Kushner just said on national television, “Black people have to want to be successful in order to succeed.” That’s one narrative of what’s happening, but I think there is a different narrative. The largest number of co-sponsors of H.R.40 until this year was 55. H.R.40 now has 160 – over 160 co-sponsors in congress. The people who are – are pushing this bill are going to talk to republicans and democrats. And the history that would justify this is a history that most Americans are completely ignorant of. And while the documentary film that I’m involved in was not made to support H.R.40, it was made to reveal the hidden history of racism in America. And when I say “hidden,” it’s hidden because it’s just not taught; but it’s hidden in plain sight. And so I heard Biden say, “Black America, you’ve had my back, and I’ve got your back.” And to me, if I were sitting in front of him, I would say, “You go to Congress on the first day after your inauguration, and you tell them, “I want an H.R.40 bill on my desk in the next 60 days.”
And – and let me just say this: when people say, “Reparations? That’s ridiculous. You can’t do that.” We’ve already paid reparations for slavery ’cause everybody in this audience I’m sure has heard of the Emancipation Proclamation when Lincoln freed enslaved people supposedly. How many of you have heard of the Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862 where Abraham Lincoln paid over one million dollars in 1862 money to slave owners in Washington D.C. for lost property? We paid reparations to slave owners. In 1988, America paid $1.6 billion to Japanese Americans, reparations for three and a half years of internment during World War II. And let me be clear, that money didn’t come close to compensating them for what they lost, but it was in acknowledgement of a wrong and an attempt at a remedy. And let’s remember that earlier this year, Congress came up with $3 billion in about three weeks’ time, so don’t tell me reparations can’t be done because our history says something completely different. And this is where I’ll – I’ll – I’ll end because I said I wanted to come back to affirmative action. If I say those words, affirmative action, most people think of, “Oh, well, those were programs from the 60s and 70s, programs of uplift so that black students and black people could have a chance, you know, have a more equal chance to succeed.”
Affirmative action didn’t start in the 60s. Affirmative action started long before the country was even formed. But if you go to the Constitution, affirmative action – how about this, giving one race the right to own another race. That’s affirmative action. Right after Abraham Lincoln passed the Compensated Emancipation Act, he passed the Homestead Act where he gave a hundred million acres of land essentially for free. You had to pay a number of dollars for a filing fee and then you lived on 160 acres of land, and if you did that for five years you owned it outright. By 1900 he had given away almost 100 million acres of land to white settlers, but we didn’t call that affirmative action. And one of the most famous, uh, quotes that Dr. King ever gave and one that most people have never seen is when he talks about the end of the Civil War and special field order 15. That’s what everyone’s heard. William Sherman, the general who burned Atlanta — well, he met with 20 African Americans — 20 men — at the beginning of 1865. He and the secretary of war, William Stanton, ’cause they knew the north was going to win. And they said to these 20, uh, — ins- fr- these were freed black men at that time — “How can the government help you in being successful?” And what they said is, “Just give us land. And here’s who’s going to work it, the women, the children and the old men ’cause the young men are going to volunteer for service in the government.”
This is after we have been enslaved for 236 years. and people question our patriotism. But what’s more is that four days la- later William Sherman was so impressed by what these 20 freed men had told him, that he issued special field order 15, 20 ac- or excuse me, 40 acres and a mule. That’s why H.R.40 is – is named as it is. And that order gave black Americans land along the South Carolina coast all the way down into Florida — some of the richest farm land that existed in America at that time. But when Lincoln was assassinated, President Johnson took all the land back. And what King said in 1967 was, not in – not only did they those white settlers the land, they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Every college with an A and M behind it is a land grant college. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they gave them low interest rates to mechanize their farms. Not only that, they paid them subsidies not to farm and as King said and these are the very people telling the black community that you need to lift yourself by your own bootstraps.
So the history of how we got to where we are, I think can inform what we need to do going forward. And I – I – I quoted, uh, William Burroughs. The last person I’m going to quote is a little more – is a little darker, and that’s George Orwell, “Who controls the past controls the future.” If you control the narrative of how we got to this moment in November 2020, then you control the narrative of what we do going forward. And it’s only if we confront our actual history, not the legend of our history. If we confront our actual history, we will start taking steps as a community, republican or democrat. I believe when people see the truth the vast majority of them — not everybody, but a majority — will say, “We’ve got to do something different.” And that’s when we’re on the start to a different kind of America.
Emmanuel Sogunle: Thank you for sharing all that. Um, kind of switching gears a little, um, I aspire to be a lawyer in the future, so I was just wondering if you could give me, like, any career advice or just, like, what you experienced as a black lawyer and just, yeah, talk more about that?
Jeffery Robinson: Well, Emmanuel, uh, one of the things that I hope will be different for you is that, uh, I went to law school in 1978. I graduated in 1981 and for large parts of my career, I was the only black face in — fill in the blank — in this courtroom or in this meeting room or in this place. And that’s obviously changing a lot in America. What I would say to you is something that my dad said to me. My dad was a high school principal, and he spent so much time at the schools that he was running, and he clearly loved it. And he came home one weekend and we were talking, and he said, “Yeah, I was so busy yesterday I missed lunch.” And I was maybe nine or ten, and I’m like, “Missed lunch? How could you, you know, w- what are you talking about? Why would you do that?” And he looked at me and he said — and he didn’t come up with this saying but he just said it to me — he said, “If you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” And that’s something that I have discovered. I can say that from the day I graduated from law school, I was a public defender in state court for five years. And when I say that, let me just throw a shout out to someone in the audience named Lisa Dealy (phonetic) that I have known since 1981, and I love dearly, and who has a relative at Colby; but I’m not outing anybody.
I was a federal public defender for three years after that, and then I spent 27 years in private practice. I did exactly the kind of cases that I wanted to do. I could be financially much, much better off than I am right now had I chosen to do work based on how lucrative it would be for me. But I’m 64 years old, and I think that I will be able until I die to avoid eating cat food, so, you know, I’m not poor. Um, I’m not rich, but I’m not poor. And the satisfaction that I have about doing work that was important to me, um, is something that I wouldn’t trade for anything. And so we were saying before we went live that, you know, things are so chaotic right now, and it just feels like the whole country is in spasms. And that actually gives me hope. It’s not that I’m celebrating this chaos because I am not. I live in Seattle, Washington, and many of you heard about the demonstrations here in Seattle and the area that was “taken over.” I’m looking it – a- out my window right now, and for much of this year, my wife and I would be here in this apartment and say, “Oh, there go the flashbangs. Oh, there go – go the rubber bullets. We should turn on the TV and see what’s happening.”
Um, but I say to myself, if America is really getting ready to shake off centuries of white supremacy and really start dealing with issues of race in serious way, this is exactly what it would look like if that was about to happen. And so what I say to you is, you know, my career has coincided with the largest increase in mass incarceration in the history of this country. I’m not very proud of that, and I’m doing what I can to try and dismantle it. But you are going to be coming into the legal system at a time when it’s at a tipping point, and we have been at tipping points in America before on racial justice and every single time, we have rolled back. When we started the Constitution, were we going to get rid of slavery? Nope, we rolled back. At the end of the Civil War, reconstruction was working, were we going to move forward? Nope, we rolled back. In 1968 we had had the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, we were winning at lunch counters on buses. I was 11 years old, and I thought we were about to go into the biggest realm of racial justice America had ever seen. And then Martin Luther King got shot in the neck and what came next was Richard Nixon and the war on drugs. So we rolled back then.
We are at a tipping point once again, and your legal career is going to coincide with the decision on which way that ball rolls. And so I’m thrilled for you. It’s going to be a challenge, but I am thrilled for you. And my hope is don’t look at folks like me or anybody — I mean respect your elders. There are things we can teach you and say to you that actually are valuable, but on the other hand, every single person that I looked up to as a lawyer, I wasn’t trying to be them. I was trying to be better than them. So I wanted to see what they had that I could take and then use my own skill and talent to be better than those lawyers. So I need you to be better than me because that’s what America needs. And I will say this: you just by the questions you’ve asked, by the little conversation we have had before we went on camera, you are so far ahead of where I was in my thinking when I was a senior in college that this just brings me joy ’cause if you’re part of what’s coming next, I feel pretty good.
Grace Hillis: Thank you, Jeffery, for that. And so I’ll be asking the last question, and it’s actually from an audience member.
Jeffery Robinson: Okay.
Grace Hillis: A lot of people are against those in jail having the right to vote as well as those with prior felonies gaining the right to vote once their free. What would you say to someone who opposes felon voting rights?
Jeffery Robinson: I would say where did disenfranchisement come from? Does anybody know? It didn’t just happen. And in fact, for a long time in American history being convicted of a crime had nothing to do with whether you would vote. The 15th Amendment which gave – which is interpreted as giving blacks the right to vote. If you read the 15th Amendment what it says is you can’t deny the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. What that meant in American history is it said to states you just got to say something else and that can be a code word for denying someone the right to vote. So what you’ll see is that after the 15th Amendment was passed, 13 of the 38 states that were then present in America started passing felony disenfranchisement laws. And remember the 13th Amendment which said slavery was kept for those convicted of a crime? So especially in the south you would see, uh, crimes like stealing a chicken is a felony. So what that means if a black person is unemployed, and they steal something for food, they’ve been convicted of a felony. Now they can be rented out as convict labor to the very plantations where they were enslaved doing the exact same work they did as enslaved people, and any money that was paid by the plantation owner was paid to the city, to the jail. So not only was it a source of income, but by taking away the right to vote, you are taking that community and putting it back as close to the conditions of slavery as is possible.
And so when these 13 states started passing these laws, you could just see a pattern, and – and it was as clear as day. And Maine is the perfect example. Maine allows people convicted of felonies to vote. Maine allows people in prison to vote. Why is that? How many black people are there in Maine? Not very many. The states that had the largest black populations were the states that passed the most felony disenfranchisement laws, and the states that had the smaller black populations were the states that were getting rid of their felony disenfranchisement laws or limiting them severely. So if you’re in a bar and you get drunk and you punched someone out, that’s assault in the second degree. You go to prison for two or three years. Why should you have the right to vote taken away?
So this is a discussion that I would say we should come back to first – the first purposes. It’s like we assume that there is a justification for denying folks the right to vote. And my question is why? If you’re taking away someone’s freedom, does that mean they’re less intelligent? Does it mean that they shouldn’t have a say in the community they’re coming back into? So I think part of what you are going to see is a movement in many states, and the ACLU was involved in Florida with Amendment four that was on the ballot that would have given four million people in Florida the right to vote. Uh, it’s – it got hung up in the court and so we’ll have to see where that’s going to end up — excuse me, I think it was one million people in Florida. Um, but you are seeing states all around the country looking at these laws once again and saying, “Okay. What’s the purpose of this? Why is this legitimate?” And that’s what we need to be as opposed to assuming that there are good reasons behind things. We need to look and what we may find when we look is part of this hidden history that I talked about that is there in the books for anybody that wants to read it.
And – and this is the last thing I’ll say. The reason that this hidden history is available, it’s hidden because it wasn’t taught. But for the documentary film that I’m involved in, I just went back to original source documents because there is a racial characteristic that is key here. And when I say racial, I mean the human race. For the older people in this audience they may remember a group called Steely Dan, and they had a song called The Caves of Altamira. And one of the verses was, “Before the fall when they wrote it on the wall when there wasn’t even any Hollywood, they heard the call and they wrote it on the wall.” And what they meant were there are cave drawings in Altamira, France, that are 20,000 years old. Most historians agree that the Sumerians were the first culture to use written language, and they were about 5,000 years ago. Before human beings were even using written language, they were writing stuff down. They drew pictures of the animals, pictures of their scat, pictures of their footprints, pictures of people in the tribe hunting them so they could tell the story to the younger members of the tribe.
When people think they’re doing something important, they write stuff down. And at every point in American History, when important decisions were being made, people wrote stuff down. So you don’t have to guess about the reasons for the Civil War. You don’t have to guess if they had explicit conversations about white supremacy in the Constitutional Convention. You can go back and see exactly what they said, and when you see that, you will come to the conclusion that white supremacy was one of the founding principles of our country. That doesn’t mean that our country is evil. Countries are like people. They’re not just one thing. But when we say white supremacy has had nothing to do with America, that’s because you’re talking about the legend of America not the fact of America. So I hope we’re at a time where people are ready to hear the true story ’cause it’ll have an impact on what we do going forward.
Kimberly Flowers: Well, Jeff, you are certainly one of those people to help us know that story and to uncover the, uh, you know, hidden parts of our history. And anything that Colby College and the Goldfarb Center to do – can do to help that, it’s what we’re here for. I look forward to your documentary.
Jeffery Robinson: Thank you so much.
Kimberly Flowers: I’m going to be reaching out to you and finding a way so that we could watch it here or, um…
Jeffery Robinson: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Kimberly Flowers: Wonderful. Uh, thank you so much, again, for joining us. Thanks for those in the audience. Um, this is going to be recorded and so for those that want to watch it later, uh, it will be on the Goldfarb website. Um, Jeff, I know we’ve gone a few minutes over, but I still want to turn back to you and just say any other final words? Um, but before I do that, thank you Emmanuel and Grace for my awesome student co-moderators. You guys did a fantastic job. Um, but Jeff, thank you, again, and any final words for our audience?
Jeffery Robinson: I – I – I want to just say I know it’s a tumultuous time, but tumultuous things are happening. And so, you know, hold onto each other, and, uh, what may be coming is an America that is much closer to the words that we use to describe ourselves; and I think everyone will be happy about that. So please take care everybody, and, uh, hopefully, we can see each other in person sooner as opposed to later. But in the meantime, wear those masks.
Kimberly Flowers: Wonderful. Wise words. Good night, everybody. Take care.
Jeffery Robinson: See you, everybody. Take care.