A condensed version of this piece appears on Advancement Project’s blog – Just Democracy.
“Mr. Hairston, can we get extra recess?”
The familiar inquiry entered my eardrums as the day neared completion. After a few persistent attempts from several classmates, the child who posed the question at this particular point must have known that I was about to acquiesce.
“Alright. Let’s all line up.”
The children bolted to the door and awaited further instruction. The day quickly wrapped up after the second-grade class and I got outside. After I made it back to my house, I had time to reflect on the previous two weeks. A couple of thoughts simultaneously entered my mind; the first concerned my dire need to start packing for DC, and the other centered around my commitment to substitute teaching for a two-and-a-half week period.
As this point, I was preparing to return to the nation’s capital to serve as a summer legal intern for Advancement Project – a national, multiracial civil rights organization. About three weeks prior, I became fully aware that I would have approximately a month between my last law school final of the spring and my first day of work. I wanted to spend my time constructively, as well as make a few extra dollars to support myself in DC for two months. My mother informed me of an opportunity to serve as a substitute teacher, and I concluded that such a job would be good preparation for my time in DC.
Substitute teaching proved to be an incredibly rewarding personal and professional endeavor, albeit challenging at times. As mentioned earlier, I primarily embarked upon the journey because one of Advancement Project’s programs focuses on education reform; I wanted to obtain first-hand insight into the state of public education to better inform the work I would be doing for the summer.
The experience reminded me that children are incredibly brilliant and creative. They require and deserve educators who are deeply invested in their well-being and development. Although the school year was nearly over when I started, I constantly saw enthusiasm and curiosity from the children I met over the course of a ten-day period. As an added note, I considered it an honor to serve in the role of substitute teacher as a Black man working in predominantly Black elementary schools.
With all of this knowledge in mind, I boarded a plane to Washington and prepared for a nine-week internship with Advancement Project. My passion for social justice issues originated during my time as an undergraduate at Howard University, and I felt honored to work at an organization that focuses on racial justice, if only for a couple of months. The first day arrived, and I enthusiastically ventured to the office. After going through a short orientation and meeting some of the staff members, I knew I made the right choice.
One of the benefits of working at the organization was the amount of responsibility and guidance that the staff attorneys provided to my colleagues and me. Advancement Project hosted six legal interns over the course of the summer, and each of us worked closely with the lawyers in the Ending the Schoolhouse-to-Jailhouse Track, Voter Protection and Immigrant Justice programs. It was incredibly fulfilling to work in an intellectually challenging and innovative space that is dedicating to dismantling racial discrimination in the United States.
Admittedly, there were several incredibly difficult moments during the summer. In fact, several emotionally challenging incidents occurred back-to-back. McKinney, Kalief Browder, Charleston, and Sandra Bland are just a few examples of what proved to be a bloody summer. Proclamations of ‘Black Lives Matter’ resonated as loudly as ever, but KKK rallies in the South quickly answered those declarations with great vitriol and hatred. Amid this intensely divided racial climate, economic inequality, criminalization of young people and under-resourced schools continued to plague communities of color throughout the country.
During the summer, I came into the office every day and loved it. It became strikingly evident that Advancement Project’s lawyers had honed their legal acumen by studying the appropriate legal doctrines and thoughtfully engaging members of the communities in which they worked. I admired their brilliance and sought to emulate their well-crafted outreach strategies.
Historically, summer 2015 was an incredible time to be in the District of Columbia. The Supreme Court handed down groundbreaking cases that legalized same sex marriage, adopted the disparate impact standard for housing discrimination cases and upheld key provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Additionally, due to some research we were conducting at the Library of Congress, my colleague and I were present when Obergefell v. Hodges was decided. In keeping with my undergraduate tradition, I attended the traditional Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall, and the patriotism almost felt tangible.
However, as I watched the astoundingly ornate fireworks, my heart became heavy. I thought about how the work I’d been doing illuminated the myriad threats to democracy that exist across the nation. North Carolina was the first place to come in mind because I was preparing to travel there with a litigation team from Advancement Project. The historic trial of NC NAACP v. McCrory was scheduled to begin in a week and a half.
As the time for our departure grew closer, I became more and more reflective. North Carolina holds a special place in my heart. My father and his brothers were born and raised in Winston-Salem. My sister and I were also born in the city. We eventually moved, but the warm memories continued to grow as the years passed. My parents made it a point to take my sister and me to North Carolina each year when my paternal grandmother was living. Two of my uncles and their families still live in Winston-Salem.
My colleague and I arrived in Winston-Salem on a Saturday night, and a surreal feeling flowed through my being. As we checked into the hotel, it hit me that I was indeed back in my birth city. Additionally, I started to fully process our purpose for being there. We were preparing to fight a racially discriminatory voting law, enacted by the NC General Assembly, in federal court.
The case garnered national attention. Citizens from across the country descended upon Winston-Salem for the first day of the trial on July 13, 2015. I sat in the courtroom and witnessed the historic opening statements of the lawyers for the plaintiffs. I watched the compelling testimony of Rev. Dr. William Barber, the president of the NC State Conference of the NAACP. The entire day deftly portrayed the landscape of discrimination that had been created by HB 589.
After court adjourned on Monday, my bosses, colleague and I joined thousands of protesters who came to Winston-Salem for another installment of the now-famous Moral Mondays. In the fashion of the Civil Rights Movement, people walked through the streets and loudly proclaimed their opposition to state-supported discrimination. The amount of energy I felt in the space was incredible.
I eventually heard Rev. Dr. Barber speak for a second time that day, and he boldly expressed his belief that this moment is our Selma. It’s a hard reality to process, but he is absolutely right. At a time when people of color are still disproportionately subjected to poor education, substandard housing and few opportunities for economic advancement, that declaration conveyed the importance of the gathering. All Americans must unite, as we did in North Carolina, to combat the structural racism that persists in this country.
I can’t adequately express how empowering it was for me to return to the place of my birth to continue the fight started by my forebears. I took great pride in standing with the citizens of North Carolina for such a noble cause. I constantly thought of the brave men and women who perished as they sought for people of color to simply be recognized as human beings across the globe. The names and faces of Fannie Lou Hamer, Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker and Stokely Carmichael are permanently inscribed in my mind; their voices and stories push me to continue along the arduous road to freedom, even when it becomes incredibly difficult.
I am humbled by the opportunities that arose during this unparalleled internship. The staff members at Advancement Project assiduously supported me as I dedicated my efforts to fulfilling the organization’s mission. I counted it as a privilege to witness the inner workings of Advancement Project’s effective combination of social media engagement and zealous legal advocacy. I will use the lessons I learned during the summer to continue the struggle for true justice and equality. I am thankful for what can only be described as an unforgettable summer.