Activists behind “Students Against Marshall” are sick of waiting for an unjust process to produce justice and community leaders agree
“I was asking more questions than there were answers,” said Stephanie Goggans, a second-year student at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.
Goggans is a member of Students Against Marshall, a group of law students organizing to remove references to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall from the school because of his racist history.
“I don’t want my classmates that are graduating this year, or me, or anyone else after me, to have this name on our diploma.”
I spoke with Goggans and her fellow second-year law student, Emily Forsee, about the initiative, which seeks to remove the name by commencement. Despite the tightening timeline, they have been met with resistance and apathy from the university administration. This has caused some to wonder where the sense of urgency and commitment to “go beyond words” in fighting racism from Cleveland State University President Harlan Sands have gone.
Who is John Marshall?
John Marshall was a highly influential Supreme Court justice known for shaping constitutional law. Despite his judicial influence, recent findings have brought to light a much darker side to his influence on American law and politics.
Marshall lived in a slaveholding culture. His home state, Virginia, had more enslaved people than any other state. However, Marshall’s cruelty was exceptional, even for the time being. He owned over 300 people across his life and bought more whenever he could.
His judicial decisions reinforced slavery, defended the interests of slaveholders, and showed hostility against freed Black people, according to historian and author Paul Finkelman, who spent three years researching Marshall for a biography.
“Juries often decided in favor of Black people claiming their freedom, because the facts and the law were on their side. But in every case Marshall wrote the Court’s opinion, the Black people lost, even when they had won in the trial court,” he said in an article for The Atlantic.
Trust “The Process”
In the Summer of 2020, amid the national outcry for racial justice, President Sands tasked Dean Lee Fisher of CM Law to provide a recommendation to the CSU Board of Trustees on what to do about the Marshall name. A committee was formed of faculty, alumni, and students.
Despite calls for “wide input,” Forsee asserts that committee members did not reflect the community or student body. “The people who were on the committee were so cherry-picked. There were only four students asked to be on it. They were so fed up with the process and lack of urgency that I think 3 of the 4 ended up dropping out of the committee.”
Forsee herself attempted to join. “I was told individually, my interest [in the process] alone made me too biased to participate,” she told me. “I want to be incredibly clear. We reject the process,” she later added.
A set of three forums took place in April 2021, and another three in November. This second set included the first opportunity for student feedback, well over a year after the petition was originally received. The response to students here was the tipping point for Goggans, who felt unheard by Fisher.
“The committee would not agree to give anyone a timeline, a ‘what’s the status,'” she said.
Now, 18 months since the committee was formed, there is little progress to show, and no estimate of when a recommendation may be complete.
As described by Forsee, the committee was to do research on the issue, decide on removing the name, and if so, provide alternative name suggestions to the board of trustees. They presented some of this in the Law School Name Framing Document, which accompanied a student feedback form.
Research and alternative names (such as Thurgood Marshall, Louis and Carl Stokes, and simply the Cleveland State University College of Law) were provided in the document. The only thing missing was the formal recommendation to the board.
The 46-page document contains two essays, “Why We Should Keep our Name,” by CM Law faculty David Forte and Stephen Lazarus, and “Why We Should Change our Name,” by three alumni on the committee, Judge Ronald Adrine, Judge Patricia A. Blackmon, and Terry Billups. Authors of the first essay are white, the second, Black.
However, Goggans made clear the widespread effects of the Marshall name. “This is not a Black people issue, this is an everybody issue…We want good people to win. If we’re going to name schools after people, let’s name that after people that didn’t own other people, and not excuse that by saying they’re really smart.”
What’s in a Name?
The framing document also discusses overarching principles of the process. It emphasizes that “names matter” and that recommends that readers “study how other institutions have approached naming and renaming issues.” How does this situation compare to other law schools?
Nationally, law school names vary widely. A 2006 study showed that only 17 (of 192, now 199) were named after historical figures, with eight named after Supreme Court justices. CSU, among the eight, lacks any direct historical connection to John Marshall but gets its name from a 1946 merger of the Cleveland Law School and John Marshall School of Law.
In this sense, the Marshall name is unique. However, it was not the only law school using the moniker. We can look to Chicago, home of the University of Illinois Chicago’s School of Law. Formerly known as the UIC John Marshall Law School, the school received the same petition as Cleveland-Marshall at the same time. In contrast to CM Law, UIC announced the name change in May 2021.
Cleveland City Council Steps In
“Chicago got it right,” said Cleveland City Councilman Kevin Conwell at a city council meeting on Jan. 10. Independent of Students Against Marshall, he also took a stand against the use of the Marshall name, and proposed an emergency resolution, “urging the Law School Name Committee at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law to change the name of the law school to eliminate any reference to John Marshall.”
The resolution was passed unanimously by all present council members on Jan. 24. CSU has yet to publicly comment.
Conwell referred to a past piece of legislation he introduced to change the name of a middle school named after Patrick Henry, another slave owner. He emphasized the effects of this on the youth in his community.
“When your teacher tells you to do a book report — little African American students — and you read that Patrick Henry had your ancestors in slavery, and you’re going to that school, and you’re identifying with that oppressor? That slaveholder? How do you think that makes children feel?”
All eyes are on CSU as the pressure builds in the community. Although they are likely awaiting the results of their student survey, the deadline set by Students Against Marshall, commencement, approaches quickly.
The Board of Trustees, ultimate decision-makers in the naming process, have only two meetings left this semester. They are tomorrow, Jan. 27, and March 17, although they can call additional meetings as needed.
Students Against Marshall’s singular goal is to remove the name Marshall. As for the new name, “I don’t care,” said Goggans, “As long as we’re not implicitly valuing someone’s intellectual contributions over the fact that they were a trash person.”