Diversity and Social Justice at Historically Black Law Schools

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Elisa Chen

Historically Black Law Schools (HBLSs) make up a small minority of this nation’s 200+ law schools. In fact, there are only six HBLSs accredited by the American Bar Association. They are:

Yet, despite the small number of HBLSs, these law schools play a vital role in educating students and bettering our nation’s jurisprudence. They all share unique histories of and missions dedicated to helping underserved students. After all, HBLSs were originally established because black students were excluded from white law schools under the separate-but-equal doctrine. For example, Thurgood Marshall School of Law was specifically created by Texas in response to Sweatt v. Painter, the lawsuit which later set the precedent for Brown v. Board of Education. Today, Thurgood Marshall School of Law remains dedicated to supporting underserved students in the legal profession, viewing itself as an agent of community change that empowers the disenfranchised by preparing lawyers to practice law and shape public policy.

In addition to Thurgood Marshall School of Law, the aforementioned HBLSs are also considered some of the most diverse law schools in the nation. In fact, Florida A&M University Law School has been recognized as the most diverse law school in the United States. HBLSs are also known for inspiring social change. For instance, Southern University Law Center’s mission is “to provide access and opportunity to a diverse group of students from underrepresented racial, ethnic, and socio-economic groups to obtain a high quality legal education… [and] to train a cadre of lawyers equipped with the skills necessary for the practice of law and for positions of leadership in society.”

The University of District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law is another example, as the University is committed to using law for public interest to help those in need. The University of District of Columbia has the largest clinical requirement of any American law school, requiring students to provide more than 700 hours of pro bono legal service, which students often fulfill by helping D.C. residents through direct hands-on work. In recognition of this feat, the U.S. News & World Report ranked the University as number seven in clinical training among all American law schools in 2014.

It is no surprise, then, that HBLSs have been extremely active in recent cases of police brutality involving African Americans. For instance, immediately following the grand juries’ decisions not to indict the police officers involved in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, Howard University Law students wrote an open letter urging for social change. Howard University School of Law also chose to aptly celebrate Constitution Day by establishing events centered on “insuring domestic tranquility,” as it relates to “criminal justice” and the “militarization of the police.” Elsewhere, North Carolina Central University law school students gathered in a rally, holding up their hands in support of Brown. Also in attendance was North Carolina Central University law professor and state NAACP Attorney Irving Joyner, who called for greater voter participation and involvement in community outreach programs in honor of Brown’s memory.

Thus, although small in number, HBLSs are extremely important because of their focus on diversity and social justice, something that all law schools in the nation and worldwide can learn from.

Elisa Chen completed her M.S.Ed. in Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and was a research assistant at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. She is now a Research Analyst at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

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