Savannah Potter-Miller and her classmates often stayed up until midnight studying at the Rutgers Law School library in Newark.
“We were determined that we were going to make it,” Potter-Miller said. “We came to law school to be lawyers fully prepared to represent anybody in the world.”
Potter-Miller, a retired administrative law judge from Atlanta, was among 23 students from the North and segregated South who were in the inaugural class of the Minority Student Program (MSP), a progressive initiative Rutgers created in 1968 to improve the law school’s woeful racial makeup. The goal: Double the number of black attorneys in the state over the next five years.
That first class believed it had no other choice but to succeed.
Rutgers, a major player in producing lawyers in New Jersey then, had only two or three black students at the law school in 1967, when the Newark riots occurred. Legal representation statewide among minorities was just as dismal, with fewer than 60 black lawyers practicing out of 8,000.
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After the riots, Rutgers began to address that inequality under law school Dean Willard Heckel, a civil rights champion, who “was concerned about the absence of minorities,” said Frank Askin, a retired Rutgers professor of constitutional law. Askin, known by Heckel for his history as a civil rights organizer, worked with professor Alfred Slocum, one of the MSP founders, to form a committee that would bring about diversity at the law school, and eventually the state.
“We (MSP) changed the composition of the New Jersey bar and eventually the face of the bench,” Askin said.
Fifty years later, the MSP is still thriving and so are its alumni, who returned to Newark Saturday for an evening gala at the Robert Treat Hotel to celebrate a half century of progress. They gathered for an all-day symposium about the program, which not only trained them in social justice, but opened the doors to a profession that still needs their presence.
“In this country, diversity is not a weakness. It is a strength,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J, an MSP alumnus. “I continue to believe that as our law firms, our courtrooms, our board rooms grow more diverse, our country becomes a far more just, more equal place.”
Since its inception, the MSP has produced more than 2,500 graduates, and the pedigree is impressive. The scroll, in part, lists Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia Valdes; Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez; Yvonne Segars, the first African-American woman to be the New Jersey public defender, and Marcia Anderson, the first African-American woman to become a major general in the Army, and who is now clerk of the Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.
With nametags dangling from their necks, nearly 700 alumni rolled into Newark for the largest gathering of Rutgers faithful in the history of the law school, which means the MSP was more than a diversity program.
It helped students — many who were from a historically underrepresented background — get acclimated to the rigors of law school. It taught them how to prepare for class, how to read cases and how to be socially conscious lawyers who challenge injustice.
“Many of the first 20 people came from an activist background,” said Ollis Douglas Jr., a New Jersey public defender for 42 years and a member of that inaugural class. “Rutgers wanted you to go out and give back to the community.”
That’s what Charles V. McTeer did when he graduated in 1972. He returned to Mississippi, where he had been a civil rights worker after graduating college, and became a successful civil rights attorney for more than 30 years, retiring in 2005.
“Before we appeared, there were not that many African-Americans who did what we were doing, and the goal was that some of us would become civil-rights lawyers and some of us would become judges in places where there were no judges, where there were no civil-rights lawyers, in local communities, across the South and the North.”
It was a noble campaign, born of social unrest in Newark, but there were growing pains a year after the MSP started. In 1969, the Association of Black Law Students on campus published an “Indictment of the Law School Community” that was titled “The Rutgers Story: The White Law School and the Black Liberation Movement.”
It called for an overhaul of the curriculum, even though the law school had already expanded courses when MSP got underway. Lennox S. Hinds, a MSP law student who wrote the indictment, challenged the school in federal court, asserting that Rutgers’ attempt to improve its offerings wasn’t sufficient. This prompted the administration to cancel classes on Nov. 5, 1969, and meet with students about their concerns.
Among their complaints, Hinds said, was that the law school was training lawyers to represent white society to the detriment of blacks, that students were unprepared to practice law and the institution was not addressing the needs of the people in the community.
“The law school as a foundation of the legal process had a duty and responsibility to rectify the wrong that we were seeing,” said Hinds, who went on to represent Nelson Mandela during a 45-year career in which he became a world-renowned criminal defense and international human rights lawyer.
After meeting with students, Rutgers changed its curriculum and the way the law school operated. But the program faced additional challenges in 1978, when the U.S Supreme Court ruled, in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, that racial quotas and set-asides were unconstitutional.
“We said we didn’t have a quota,” Askin said. “We had a goal looking for diversity and the court ultimately said yes to that.”
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Although it was orginally geared toward students of color, Rutgers expanded the term minority to include disadvantaged whites and any student who can demonstrate a history of socioeconomic or educational disadvantage.
Along the way, the MSP has changed lives and made a legal education possible from a network of tough-minded professors and alumni, who give back.
“I didn’t know what I was doing at first,” said Latiqua Liles, who is the first lawyer in her family, and works at the firm Manes & Weinberg in Springfield. “Rutgers was the best choice I could have ever made.”
“None of us got here by ourselves,” said Segars, director of the Educational Opportunity Program at Kean University. “We turned to each other for support, guidance and counsel.”
That encouragement led David Harris, a 1979 MSP alumnus, to enter the Rutgers’ Moot Court competition, which he won as the first black student. The victory, he said, was significant because Rutgers used it to show that blacks were qualified to be in law school and were not taking the place of whites.
“I would not have done that had it not been for MSP students telling me I had to compete,” he said.
Roger Castillo, who graduates from the MSP next month, said he doesn’t think he would have received the same backing if he attended a different school. Tony Martinez, who also graduates next month agreed, because he pleaded with the MSP assistant dean Yvette Bravo-Weber to let him participate when he mistakenly didn’t select the program while filling out the law school application
The MSP is a family, an integral part of their personal and professional identity.
While diversity is paramount, one Rutgers law professor is looking forward to the day when that word is no longer an adjective.
“There are no diversity lawyers, there are no diversity students, there are no diversity judges,” said David Troutt, who is the founding director of the Rutgers Center on Law in Metropolitan Equity.
“There are lawyers, and students and judges, and we come from where we come from and we belong here and what we are doing is critically important.”
Barry Carter: (973) 836-4925 or firstname.lastname@example.org or
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