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January 10, 2023 From the Chair

Talking in Memphis

Justin Bingham

One of the privileges of being chair of the Criminal Justice Section is the ability to choose the location of our Spring Meeting. Some chairs hold the meeting in their hometowns, while others choose a “destination” location. The location can dramatically change the flavor and focus of the meeting. I want to choose a location that holds both significance to me personally, as well as to the work we do as a section. My choice for our Spring Meeting is Memphis, Tennessee.

Why Memphis? I grew up a mere 85 miles from Memphis, so in many respects, Memphis is home. As a kid, I saw Memphis as the “big city.” Everything important seemed to happen in Memphis, but I really didn’t know the true significance Memphis has played in our country’s history. I was unaware of the rolethe cotton industry and slavery played in shaping the modern realities of life in the South. I was unaware of the importance Memphis played in the post-slavery Jim Crow era that influences much of the criminal justice system. And I wasn’t fully aware of the global significance the city played during the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Again and again, Memphis has played an important role in the American experience. I would soon find out how the city would play a surprisingly important role in my own life.

Life-changing experiences can happen when you least expect them. Some turning points in your life are significant events, while others are more subtle. One of those subtle events happened to me in 1993 during a trip to Memphis shortly after my high school graduation. A high school friend asked me to accompany him to a medical appointment that was needed for his eventual admission into the Air Force. The appointment was scheduled at a public health clinic in Memphis. I assumed I was asked to go because of the location of the appointment. He never mentioned race as the reason, but many times in the South, race is implied. As we entered the clinic, it became apparent that race was clearly the reason for my invitation. We were the only non–persons of color at the office. I was the minority for the first time in my life. For a person who had lived a sheltered, all-white existence, this new situation made me strangely uncomfortable.

After hours of waiting, my friend was finally called back for his examination. I was now the only non–person of color in the room. The awkwardness I felt seemed to amplify. I have no doubt that I was visibly uncomfortable. There was an older woman sitting across from me. She did what I was too afraid to do—she struck up a conversation. What happened next was amazing. I learned what it is like to live in inner-city Memphis, how difficult it is to hold down a job, and how a criminal conviction can make life nearly impossible. My problems paled in comparison to issues this kind woman faced simply to survive. Hearing our conversation, other people in the area joined in. Over the next couple hours, I learned more about the struggles of being Black and poor than I had learned throughout my entire life. I learned about structural barriers to success that I didn’t know existed. I had always thought that you get ahead by simply working hard. What I learned that day was that working hard isn’t aways enough. When I left home that morning, I didn’t expect that I would I return from my trip to Memphis as a changed person, but I did.

In all honesty, I’m embarrassed to tell the story of my trip to Memphis. I now see how sheltered and unaware I was as a young person. Sadly, a trip to the doctor’s office became a profound event. Living in a monolithic community provides a narrow understanding of how society works, as well as how worth and value are judged. Traveling outside of your own reality and experiencing something different forces you to rethink those assumed values. Being able to view someone else’s reality up close can be transformational.

My trip to Memphis made me reassess how I see the world and how I view fundamental fairness. I have always been a fairly idealistic person who thinks we can make the world better, but that experience smacked me in the face. Memphis showed me that the world holds some cold, hard truths that aren’t very pleasant—not everything is fair and not everyone faces the same challenges in life. This realism about the world has driven me to do as much as I can to change the systems in which we work. In fact, these lessons are the underpinnings of my focus as chair of the Criminal Justice Section.

For many reasons, Memphis has been a significant influence in my life. It is where I first opened my eyes to the realities of the world. And more importantly, it is where I decided to do something to help move our flawed systems forward. It was a simple conversation with a stranger that led to this realization. Merely talking to other people can be a radical act in the fight against inequality. It is much harder to deny inconvenient truths when you hear them from someone who is directly affected by their existence.

I hope everyone can experience a life-altering conversation when we meet in Memphis. Programming at the Spring Meeting will focus on moving the criminal justice system forward, as well as examining failures of the past. We will reach out to local criminal justice leaders to hear how they are working to move the needle towards justice. And we will gather to commemorate the sacrifices of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the fight for equality.

Memphis’s history is complicated. Memphis’s journey hasn’t always been easy. But the city has persevered, just as all of us must persevere in our own personal and professional journeys. I’m a better person for visiting Memphis on that day in 1993. I have every confidence that you will also leave Memphis as a changed person. So, come join us this spring in Memphis for an important conversation on how we can move the criminal justice system forward. You will be glad that you did!

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Justin Bingham

Spokane, WA

Justin Bingham is the City Prosecutor for the City of Spokane based in Spokane, Washington, and chair of the Criminal Justice Section for 2022–23.