By Corrine McCaw
On Thursday, Feb. 18, Cumberland School of Law’s Black Law Students Association hosted the 27th Annual Thurgood Marshall Symposium titled, “To Whom Much is Given: The Past, Present, and Future of the Legal Profession.”
Cumberland Law class of 2019 graduate Denzel Okinedo, moderated the event, which featured conversation between the Honorable Sybil Cleveland ‘90; City of Huntsville Municipal Judge Courtney French ’98, of Petway French & Ford; Leon Hampton Jr. ’13, of Beasley Allen Law Firm; and the Alabama Lawyers Association President and Sara Williams ’06, of Alexander Shunnarah Law Firm and coach of the Cumberland School of Law National Trial Team.
The conversation covered topics on how each member chose to pursue law as a career, mentors that helped them along the way, their time as a Black law student at Cumberland, how they are engaging with issues in our society today and much more.
Okinedo opened the conversation with a Maya Angelou quote, “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” This quote serves as an accurate representation of the symposium’s conversation. Each participant spoke openly about challenges they have faced in their career and how they have opened doors for the next generations of law professionals.
Throughout the conversation, each participant noted that they have faced challenges in their career due to their race, and it was because of Black law professionals who came before them that they have their career today.
“A lot of us have had the opportunities we had because the bridges that brought us over were other Black attorneys, other Black judges,” French said.
Okinedo noted that currently only 5% of attorneys in the United States are Black and only one-third are women. Cleveland and Williams shared their experiences as often being the only woman, especially a Black woman, in the room. While the experience can be daunting at times, both women assured it was necessary to remain bold and true to yourself.
“When you are in positions of leadership it’s important not only to accept them, but also to be visible while you’re in them so that those people behind us you can see you in that position and know this is something attainable,” Williams said.
According to the Cumberland School of Law, the annual symposium recognizes the legacy of the first African American associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, by addressing historical and contemporary issues that affect minority communities.
The full Thurgood Marshall Symposium is available to watch online on Samford University’s website.