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President’s Letter: Standing on the Soapbox for Professionalism

By Darren Summerville
President, DeKalb Bar Association

I had planned to pen my inaugural column – an electronic soapbox of sorts, as the incoming president of the association – about a subject quite dear to me: the need for a renewed emphasis on professionalism within the legal community. Then Charlottesville happened. I suspect that everyone reading this has at least a decent idea what actually occurred, though the warring partisan circles and media filters have not particularly emphasized a fair distillation of events. I’ll see if I can improve upon that showing.

Back in February, months before the tragedies of August 12, the Charlottesville City Council voted to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee (and his mount, Traveler) that stood in a public park eponymously bearing Lee’s name. The statue, though not commonly reported, was unveiled in 1924, amid a two-day gathering of the Sons of the Confederacy, deep within where the infamous Jim Crow laws grew in prominence.

Lawsuits followed, certainly of interest to the practitioners in the audience, but that was hardly the end of the relevant reaction.

Charlottesville’s governing bodies continued to deemphasize Confederate monikers and symbols. Lee Park was renamed “Emancipation Park” and the nearby Stonewall Jackson Park was retitled “Justice Park.” During the process, Charlottesville resident and noted “pro-white” advocate Jason Kessler promoted and organized a “Unite the Right” rally, ostensibly designed to foil (or at least bring attention to) the planned removal of the Lee statute. Smaller “rallies” at the park, centered on Lee’s statute, followed over the course of a few weeks.

A Watershed Moment?

“Rally” doesn’t really well capture all that came next. In the evening of Friday, Aug. 11, hundreds of white nationalists, some carrying torches fueled by, varyingly, kerosene or citronella, gathered on the University of Virginia campus. The group, some of whom carried long guns and other weapons, surrounded an iconic statue of Thomas Jefferson along with several dozen counter-protestors, including many students locked arm-in-arm. The nationalists chanted, amongst other and numerous hateful phrases, “blood and soil” – an apparent reference to the Nazi-propagated “blut and boden,” a call to ethnic purity based upon bloodline and motherland. Odds are high you’ve seen the images of that evening, which seemingly miraculously did not include any pernicious violence or injuries.

Saturday was altogether and, likely, historically different. Battle lines were quickly drawn between nationalist “protestors” (including, among other groups, the Ku Klux Klan; Neo-Confederates; and the American Nazi Party) and “counter protestors” (counting in numbers members of the Black Lives Matter and “Antifa” or anti-fascist individuals). Both sides seemingly believed violence to be likely, and correctly so. Hundreds of skirmishes broke out, with rocks, debris and pepper spray the primary weapons of choice. Ultimately, a man later identified as a Nazi sympathizer drove a car into a crowd largely made up of counter protestors, killing one young woman and injuring dozens of others. Later in the day, two Virginia State Police would die in a helicopter crash, while monitoring the evolving violence.

The end result . . . will reverberate well beyond downtown Charlottesville, the University of Virginia, . . . or any other geographic boundaries. . . . and might very well implicate the fate of this country’s highest elected officials, in the end.”

The end result – three dead, dozens injured, and hundreds of violent clashes – will reverberate well beyond downtown Charlottesville, the University of Virginia, or any other geographic boundaries. “Charlottesville” became international news in seconds, and might very well implicate the fate of this country’s highest elected officials, in the end.

Recalling the Flag Flap

There are many such “heritage v. hate” clashes that inform the current dispute, including a comparatively recent one closer to home. I do not equate the senseless events of Charlottesville with the largely political dispute described in the following paragraphs, but the core lessons might very well deserve comparison as somewhat parallel (if that is indeed a thing).

A decade and a half ago, Georgia experienced its own thankfully less incendiary version of the “heritage/hate” divide, in a polarized debate over the inclusion of the St. Andrew’s Cross – that is, the Confederate battle emblem – on the Georgia state flag. That flag had been adopted by the General Assembly in 1956, likely prompted by forced school integration in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decisions. That year’s legislative session also included the so-called “interposition resolution,” a subset of Governor Marvin Griffin’s “massive resistance” campaign. The legislative term was, in the words of one federal court, “dominated by bills and resolutions which largely represented the state’s efforts to avoid desegregation.”

Over the coming decades, efforts to adopt a less divisive version of the flag were championed by various state governors and leaders, to no avail. Picking up that standard in 2001, then-Governor Roy Barnes led an effort to change the flag, an attempt to follow in South Carolina’s footsteps. The sister state’s governor had removed the confederate battle flag from atop the South Carolina Capitol, amidst a growing wall of protests, controversy and economic boycotts.

Facing similar calls for boycotts in Georgia, Governor Barnes embarked upon a campaign to adopt an alternative state flag, even speaking in the well of the House of Representatives to urge passage of a bill to that effect. Ultimately those efforts proved successful, as the General Assembly adopted – and Barnes swiftly signed into law – legislation that relegated the Confederate emblem to a tiny position on the new state flag, alongside other versions of the “official” Georgia and United States Flags that have flown over the state capitol. The political fallout was immediate, obvious and widespread. Many, including my then-second-year law student self, wrote that Barnes’ efforts to replace the flag would potentially cost him the governor’s mansion.

The November 2002 elections seemed to bear out that prediction. Rural voters turned out in record numbers to vote for Barnes’ opponent, Sonny Perdue. Most commentators that had followed the election cycle attributed Barnes’ loss, especially heavy voting setbacks in rural counties, to the “heritage v. hate” controversy. Certainly more than what we saw that weekend in Virginia, that spirited and at times even nasty political debate is leagues removed from a scene involving, among other atrocities, bottles full of urine thrown at fellow citizens.

Georgia’s political experiences were replicated in other states, which included other calls for removal of the Confederate battle flag, whether on license plates or even within cemetery displays. And the calls for the removal of such icons have only grown louder in the years that followed, now reaching statutes of Confederate war figures, and even the enormous carvings on DeKalb’s own Stone Mountain. The issue isn’t going away, period. The violence and sheer hate displayed in Charlottesville should hopefully drive home that message, if there is anything to be gained from the shameful events of a few days ago.

The Take-away for Our Profession

So, rhetorically, what exactly is the message, here? Several, actually.

First, live up to your word. Each of us has as at least one common denominator: the oath we swore to as we entered the profession – to uphold the Georgia and United States constitutions. Speech is protected, to be sure, but violence is not constitutionally sanctioned behavior. If the situation presents itself, remember that we not only serve the client, but the system, as well. What that means, in terms of mission, is up for debate, but it is critical to not lose sight of that guiding principle and promise.

Second, we are advocates, one and all, and should speak out, perhaps more than any other profession. A bit of advice: if you do not know who Martin Niemoller is, look him up. He has a good point, to say the least. Speaking out does not mean that a good and able attorney must choose one side or the other as a matter of course. After all, as advocates we at least sometimes, and perhaps often, represent clients or causes that may not be lockstep with our own personal beliefs. That in no way diminishes our obligations, of course – I believe, perhaps naively, but perhaps rightly, that with the state’s imprimatur to practice law, there is a concomitant obligation to improve the system we all pledged to support and to be bound by. If Charlottesville doesn’t prompt you to realize that you have a role to play, please rethink, at least for a moment.

Third, use your license, expertise and experience. Lawyers by nature are trained to think critically and then, boiled down, persuade. Most lawyers shy away from public statements, for fear of losing current or future clients who might object to such outspokenness. But at some point the time for standing on the sidelines passes, and perhaps – perhaps – now is that time.

I did not live through the racially divided 1950s and the Brown decisions; nor do I remember the national and constitutional debates over governmental power and individual rights in the late 60s and early 70s. Conversely, I recall with photographic clarity the images of 9/11, broadcast on the dated television in my tiny Law Review office, and wondering what I could do about a situation that I could not possibly understand but that might nonetheless might very well impact my life, and my family’s, in a manner that I could not possibly foresee.

I don’t know if Charlottesville will be that generational moment, but I also do not believe that as a professional, or as a person, I have the luxury to wait around and see if that turns out to be the case. As I mentioned in the last DeKalb Bar Association luncheon, if you want to impact history, you have to show up. Run for office. Write a check. Write an op-ed. Speak up. Something.

We can do better, and should. See – in the end, I was able to talk about professionalism, anyway. I’ll step off the soapbox now, and let you guys talk.

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