"Shifting the public narrative about Black Americans, and thus collapsing the racial hierarchy of the United States, is far more important than any single legal victory or defeat."
Justin Hansford is a Professor of Law and Executive Director of the new Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center. Professor Hansford was previously a Democracy Project Fellow at Harvard University, a Visiting Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, and an Associate Professor of Law at Saint Louis University. He has a B.A. from Howard University and a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center. He also received a Fulbright Scholar award to study the legal career of Nelson Mandela, and served as a clerk for Judge Damon J. Keith on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. He is a leading scholar and activist in the areas of critical race theory, human rights, and law and social movements. He is a co-author of the forthcoming Seventh Edition of Race, Racism and American Law, the celebrated legal textbook that was the first casebook published specifically for teaching race-related law courses. His interdisciplinary scholarship has appeared in academic journals at various universities, including Harvard, Georgetown, Fordham, and the University of California at Hastings. He has served as a policy advisor for proposed post-Ferguson reforms at the local, state, and federal level, testifying before the Ferguson Commission, the Missouri Advisory Committee to the United States Civil Rights Commission, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
As young Black law professor at St Louis University, in Missouri, Justin Hansford found himself in the thick of the protests following the murder of an unarmed teenager by a Ferguson police officer in August 2012. These protests after the murder of Mike Brown were the beginning of the mass Movement for Black Lives – and of a journey, for Hansford, into understanding what it means to be a “movement lawyer” when you are a member of the community under threat yourself. “Narratives provide the lifeblood of the law, as well as the lifeblood of social movements,” he writes, telling his own story: from being ‘saved’ as a teenager by reading Malcolm X to taking Mike Brown’s parents to testify before the United Nations Committee on Torture in Geneva. When he was arrested among others at a Wal-Mart sit-in in Ferguson, he missed the opportunity to turn the occasion into a political trial, he writes: “There was nothing in my education to prepare me for how to make such decisions; how to straddle the streets and the courthouse; how to turn protest into policy; how to intentionally set out to shape public narrative; how to think both as a lawyer and an activist…” In this brilliant essay, and in his own teaching at Howard University now, he sets out how to do so.