April 15, 2019

Civil rights era takes centerstage at ABA global conference

At first glance, a keynote program on the U.S. civil rights era would be a surprising topic at an American Bar Association Section of International Law meeting. But perhaps not when its theme is “Other Voices in Private and Public International Law.”

At the SIL Annual Conference from April 9-12 in Washington, D.C., the eldest of six daughters of Malcom X and Betty Shabazz and a lawyer-author who wrote a book on the initial student sit-in in 1960 provided glimpses into an era that helped reshape world history and accelerated the U.S. civil rights movement.

Attallah Shabazz shared remembrances of her father, who attracted crowds and controversy. In 1959, Malcolm X was featured in a week-long television special with Mike Wallace, called “The Hate That Hate Produced.” The program explored the fundamentals of the Nation of Islam, and tracked Malcolm’s emergence as one of its most important leaders.

Most of the media attention directed toward him at the time was unfavorable, heightening racial tensions in the early days of the civil rights movement. Malcolm X was killed in 1965 in New York when Attallah Shabazz was 6 years old.

“If I was the daughter of the guy you think you know, how could I exist,” she said, recalling her memory of her father and growing up in the family’s East Elmhurst, N.Y., home.

“I knew my father as a father,” she continued. When he arrived home, “rage did not enter the front door of the house. It was resolve.”

Shabazz, an ambassador-at-large representing Belize, is a producer, writer and diplomat who has spent more than 38 years developing culturally diverse curriculums and programs for educational institutions, executive forums, diplomatic networks, penal systems, conferences and human service organizations globally. She describes herself as “an advocate” rather than an “activist.” Similarly, she said, “my father was not a revolutionary; he was an evolutionary.”

While media often portrayed major differences between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Shabazz remembers how King embraced her mother in 1965 after her father’s death. “When Dr. King was assassinated (in 1968), my mother was at his wife’s aid.”

Earlier at the April 10 luncheon, lawyer and researcher Christopher W. Schmidt, professor and associate dean at Chicago-Kent College of Law, outlined his 2018 book, “The Sit-Ins: Protest and Legal Change in the Civil Rights Era.” The book provides an analysis of the famous 1960 lunch-counter protests led by four black college students in the Woolworth department store in Greensboro, N.C.

“They just got tired of talking and decided to do something,” Schmidt said of the first sit-in on Feb. 1.

Their passive resistance and peaceful sit-down demand helped ignite a youth-led movement to challenge racial inequality throughout the South, accelerated by similar protests organized by students in Nashville, Tenn., which had been planning nonviolent actions for months.

By the end of February 1960, Schmidt said, sit-ins had taken place in 30 U.S. cities.

In reflecting on the times, Schmidt observed that “a lot of (the civil disobedience) had to do with frustration,” both with the South’s Jim Crow laws of the time and with an older generation of blacks who seemed more accepting of the status quo.

The students, he added, understood that lawyers argued for models of social change but that wasn’t enough. “The protests they undertook were able to produce tangible results,” he said.

April 11’s second-day of luncheon speakers also reflected the theme of other voices. Anne Nelson, an award-winning author and playwright who has written extensively about human rights and the role of individuals in conflicts, talked of her work. Since 2003, Nelson has taught at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York, and her most recent work, “Suzanne's Children: A Daring Rescue in Nazi Paris,” is a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.

Trita Parsi, author and founder of the National Iranian American Council, a non-partisan organization dedicated to promoting greater understanding between the American and Iranian people, also discussed how a few individuals have impacted relations between the U.S., Israel and Iran. For his 2007 book, “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States,” he interviewed more than 130 Israeli, Iranian and American decision-makers.