This month, the University of Alabama School of Law hosted its annual orientation week for incoming 1Ls—which included several days of lectures and panels to prepare students for the law school environment and build rapport among the entering class. During orientation, the Alabama Law Office of Diversity & Inclusion hosted Reena Evers-Everette and Lisa McNair to provide historical context for contemporary discussions of diversity and inclusion. Asst. Prof. Anil Mujumdar, the Interim Director of Diversity & Inclusion, framed the discussion by reminding the class of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words from Letter from Birmingham Jail that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere” and urged the class to contribute to the fight against injustice throughout law school and beyond.
The presentation began with Ms. McNair sharing the story of her sister, Denise, who was one of four young girls murdered when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed in Birmingham on September 15, 1963. In relating the historical failures of the criminal justice system to timely prosecute her sister’s killers, Ms. McNair emphasized the change that young lawyers can create—pointing to former Attorney General Bill Baxley (Class of ’64) as an example of someone who ultimately put his career on the line to reopen the investigation into a cold case. In 1977, his efforts led to the successful prosecution and conviction of one of the perpetrators responsible for the crimes.
“[Baxley] knew that [case] would have killed his political career in Alabama, but sometimes you just have to do the right thing,” Ms. McNair stated as she shared her hope that the room of future lawyers would also rise to the occasion when necessary to right a wrong.
Ms. McNair discussed the conviction of the last two bombers by former U.S. Attorney and former U.S. Senator Doug Jones in 2001 and 2002, and she closed her remarks by imploring the class of 2024 to remember that law has the power to positively affect real people’s real lives. Ms. McNair added that historical events provide context for shared understanding and growth and are not disconnected from lived experiences and current events.
Following Ms. McNair’s presentation, Reena Evers-Everette shared the story of her mother and father, Mrs. Myrlie Evers and the late Mr. Medgar Evers. Her father was a veteran of World War II and worked as the NAACP’s field secretary for the state of Mississippi. He was denied admission to the University of Mississippi School of Law in 1954 on the basis of race. Determined to fight against anti-Black racism, he worked with future Justice Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP in winning admission for James Meredith to the University of Mississippi as the first African-American student to enroll at that institution.
Because of his efforts as the NAACP’s field secretary in Mississippi to register voters and fight against discrimination, Mr. Evers and his family regularly received harassment and threats of violence. Just after midnight on June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers was assassinated in the driveway of his own home after returning from work. There were two failed prosecutions in 1964 that both concluded in hung juries, but Mrs. Evers’s faith never wavered in her pursuit of justice in the years that followed. After three decades of Mrs. Evers’s advocacy and persistence, her husband’s killer was successfully prosecuted and convicted in 1994. Ms. Evers-Everette’s mother, Mrs. Myrlie Evers, continued the family’s commitment to service and advocacy, became the chair of the NAACP in 1995, and published three books including an autobiography in 1999 titled Watch Me Fly: What I Learned on the Way to Becoming the Woman I Was Meant to Be. With her parents as inspiration, Ms. Evers-Everette now runs The Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute and carries on the proud legacy of her parents’ life and work. Ms. Evers-Everette stated that looking out across the room of 1Ls gave her hope and she encouraged students to use what they learn at Alabama Law to fight for what’s right now and in the future with passion and in whatever capacity they can.
The Office of Diversity & Inclusion seeks to build, strengthen, and educate the Alabama Law community in an effort to remedy injustice. Students, faculty, and staff will have the opportunity to build further on these lessons from orientation by attending the annual memorial service for the four little girls at 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 2021.
Written by: Heather Gann