When History Replaces Legend: An Exploration of Racism in America With Jeffery Robinson

June 19, 2020

Jeffery Robinson

Juneteenth, the day we commemorate the end of slavery, feels very different this year. People are filling the streets of towns and cities all over the country and demanding an end to police brutality, white supremacy, and systemic racism. It feels like something’s happening. It feels like change is on its way.

Few people know more about the impact of racism and the legacy of slavery in America than Jeffery Robinson. A renowned lawyer who’s been fighting for justice for almost 40 years, he joined the ACLU in 2015 as deputy legal director, focusing on criminal and racial justice. He talked to us recently from his home in Seattle and mentioned when we began that he could see demonstrators gathering on the streets below for another night of protests against George Floyd’s murder and the systemic racism that brought it about.

What led you to leave private practice and join the ACLU?

Well, I always wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer from the time I was 11, and becoming first a public defender at the state level and then a public defender at the federal level and then going into private practice, I was working on things that mattered a lot to me. I was working on the criminal legal system. I was working on issues of racial justice.

In 2011, through some family tragedies, a nephew of ours came to live with us. We didn't have children, but all of a sudden, we had a teenager. One of the things I was faced with was having a young black male in my home asking me things like, "I'm going to a party. What do I do if the police come?" And while my whole career had been focused on the intersection of racial justice and the criminal legal system, it became all of a sudden very, very personal.           

And as I worked over the next several years, I started to do the research that led to Who We Are, a documentary film that I'm going to release. And in 2015, Anthony Romero, who is the executive director of the ACLU, came to Seattle. I had met him several years before at Guantanamo Bay, where I was representing one of the five men charged with the 9/11 attacks, a representation that the ACLU was supporting. He said, "I want you to come and lead our criminal justice work at the ACLU," and I was floored. But it felt like an opportunity to take a bigger swing at issues of criminal justice and racial justice, and thinking about the future of this young man in my home, it just felt like it was the right thing to do, and I'm glad I did it.

Jeffery Robinson

What makes an 11-year-old kid want to become a criminal defense lawyer? Can you talk about your experiences growing up?

I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. I was born in 1956, so I was 11 years old in March and April of 1968. The Civil Rights Movement wasn't something that I read about in a book. The Civil Rights Movement was what I was walking into every day when I walked out of the front door of our house. Schools were being desegregated. Buses were being desegregated. 

In the last week of March of 1968, Dr. King came to Memphis to lead a demonstration in support of striking sanitation workers, and that demonstration turned violent. There were lots of people arrested, and I went to court with my dad to see some of the proceedings. And I was amazed when these criminal defense lawyers showed up seemingly out of nowhere, and they were arguing with the judge about who should stay in jail and who shouldn't. And they were arguing with the judge about the right to protest and arguing with the judge about police violence, and I said to my dad, "Who are those guys, and how do you get to be one?"

Jeffery Robinson

And then, of course, King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968. Can you draw some parallels between what you saw then, what you saw growing up, and what you're seeing outside your window in Seattle and all across the US?

I can't believe that we are experiencing this today. Fifty-two years after King was assassinated, 99 years after the Tulsa massacre, 65 years after Emmett Till was killed, 29 years after Rodney King, and this is still where America is.

What this is to me is an indictment of the American system, and what it has done is to pull the covers completely off. We just saw a lynching by four police officers in broad daylight that took nine minutes to unfold, and one of the things that's so remarkable is that police officer was kneeling on Mr. Floyd's neck with his hand in his pocket, not anywhere near his gun, and with a look on his face like he was smoking a cigarette. And I was reminded of those postcards of lynchings where people are sitting around smiling while bodies are being hung from trees. I think that image and the fact that it took however long it took for there to even be charges brought against these officers, I think that has shaken America, and America deserves shaking.

This feels like a pivotal moment. Change is happening. But how do we make sure we don’t revert back to the way things were?

In my view, one of the critical, critical parts of a true reckoning with America's racist history is confronting and admitting exactly what our history is. That's why I'm doing this documentary film. That's why I spent the last number of years collecting this information about American history. Information that every time I go around the country and talk about it, people are shocked. People are amazed. "Oh, my God, I was never taught that. Oh, my God, I never put those two things together," and it's because we have never told the truth about who we are.

We still have people today who will say, "There were reasons other than slavery for the Civil War." Every state that eventually joined the Confederacy had a secession convention, and as is true throughout history, when people think they're doing something important, they write it down. Go read the secession statements. They'll tell you exactly why the states left, and it wasn't anything other than slavery.

So, what I am trying to do is to go from 1619 to 2020 and to say to people, there’s more to our history than many of us have been taught. As Bryan Stevenson would say, "Slavery didn't end in 1865. It just changed forms." The fact that we were never taught about it or that we choose to ignore it is why we have these events and we roll back afterward to exactly where we were.

Jeffery Robinson

Can you talk more about the origin of Who We Are?

The Who We Are project was created based on about eight years of research that I was doing into our history of racism in America. This wasn't an intentional project. When my nephew moved in, I was terrified. I didn't know what to do and how to raise this young black man, and so I started reading. I don't even know what I was looking for, but as I started reading, I started finding facts about history, about the racist parts of our history that I had never been taught. And as I said, I was raised in Memphis. I am a black man in this country. My parents were active in the Civil Rights Movement. I thought I knew a lot about my history, and I didn't.

I didn't know as much as I should, and as I started gathering this information and talking about it, I could see the impact it was having on people. And one of my presentations included in the audience a woman named Sarah Kunstler, and she and her sister, Emily, who are the daughters of a civil rights lawyer, William Kunstler, took me to lunch and said, "This should be a documentary," and I laughed at them. But here we are.

On top of all the protests we’re seeing all over the country, there’s a pandemic that’s disproportionately affecting Black and Brown Americans.

Why are Black and Brown people getting hit hardest by COVID-19? Because of all of the factors in America that have placed Black and Brown people at the bottom of the economic pile. Let’s take a look at jails and jobs.

Forty percent of the people incarcerated in America are African American, even though we make up 12% of the population. Jails are a breeding ground for COVID-19. Why? Because there's no soap. Because there's inadequate running water. Because you can't social distance. Because the physical conditions are deteriorating. And it's not just the people in the jails. It’s administrative staff and corrections officers and the people that get arrested and come in, and those that get released and go out. The ACLU released a report saying that if conditions in jails don't change, the total number of deaths in America, not just incarcerated people but people in communities in America, could go up by 100,000.    

Next, let's talk about “essential workers." Once America opens up again, it'll be real interesting to see if these grocery workers and other people keep getting labeled as "heroes" when they start asking for union wages and living wages and health care. But Black and Brown people are the ones that have to go to work every day no matter what. And you know, heroes have a choice. A hero is somebody that looks at a situation and says, "I don't have to go in there, but I'm going to do it anyway." These folks don't have any choice. Their choice is go to low-paying jobs with no health care or lose that job and lose your home in the middle of a pandemic.

Jeffery Robinson

Sometimes we talk about the system being broken. But the system doesn’t feel broken. It feels like it’s working exactly as intended, which is to deny Black and Brown people opportunity, justice, equity, and even humanity.

This is the consequence of us closing our eyes and deciding, "I am not going to look at the elephant in the room," and the elephant just roared. With the pandemic and these killings and this lynching, and ... I've been doing this a long time, and I don't have any solutions. I really don't, and I don't have any magic words. But I am not inclined to walk away from a fight that is about establishing my value as a human being, so there's a level at which it's like, "What fucking choice do I have?"

There are many people who say, "Hope is the thing that causes people to act," but I think it's really that acting is the thing that causes hope. And so, I've seen America explode over the past week in a way that hasn't happened in decades, and the question is: Can those actions and that momentum be sustained so that we actually change the course of the country? And I don't know if the answer to that is yes or no, but there's another adage that says, "You may not beat every challenge you take on, but you will never beat the ones you don't take on." So, like I say, this is a horrible time, and it's a time of incredible opportunity. And I for one am looking to seize it.

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