Op Ed: Accomplishments Will Never Outweigh Atrocities

Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. Photo courtesy of Cleveland State University

Editor’s Note: For context on the College of Law naming issue, see The Cauldron’s previous coverage “Students, city council, and more call for the removal of “Marshall” name from College of Law” and “Cleveland-Marshall College of Law naming committee votes to strike “Marshall” from name by commencement.”

Whether we should remove the name “Marshall” from the Cleveland State University College of Law did not materialize in a vacuum at CSU, it was part of a national movement. It feels so far in the past because it has drug on for two years.

The summer of 2020 began with the largest anti-racist uprisings in world history. The extra-judicial murder of George Floyd spontaneously compelled BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) and their allies onto the streets in over sixty countries and five hundred solidarity demonstrations across our nation. As a result, monuments to colonialism tumbled around the globe.

Back home, we took down monuments to slavery. Recall Bree Newsome, leading the charge, when she climbed the South Carolina statehouse flag pole removing the confederate flag following the Emanuel AMC Church white supremacist massacre. Or, Ava Holloway and Kennedy George, the Black, teenage ballerinas who went viral posing atop Robert E. Lee’s disgraced Richmond, Virginia statue. Many of these demonstrations C|M|Law students took part in as we prepared for virtual “pandemic” law school. During this unprecedented context, students and Clevelanders demanded the brutal slave master’s name be removed.

Then, like many institutions, CSU was eager to engage in public anti-racist discourse. President Sands issued a statement, “We Stand Together Against Racism… Committed to Action.” He charged students; “we have a responsibility, individually and collectively, to act.” However, also like many institutions, in the nearly two years since that time, the eagerness toward progress has atrophied, and our commitment to white supremacy has crept back.

When people see “white” and “supremacy” next to each other, they think it means KKK. While the KKK is certainly an acute embodiment of racism, white supremacy is a cyclical system of power that keeps white-ness on top and everyone else less-than. In fact, it’s what our generation is fighting against, and it’s why this university is getting this name-change conversation completely wrong. From the beginning, CSU, just like our polarized political climate, has presented this issue to students in a binary; either we’re “erasing” or “upholding” history. Neither is true. Continuing to frame this issue this way is irresponsible and harmful.

John Marshall contributed the seminal foundation of our legal system: Judicial Review. Simultaneously, he was a man who exploited his sacred responsibility on the Supreme Court by protecting his own financial interests. He ruled against freedmen or slavery in every case given the opportunity: over 50, sometimes even against the jury. It was common practice for his family to “gift” slaves as wedding or Christmas presents, tearing families apart, and his writings are riddled with racist epithets.

Like many historical figures, he was both horrific and made contributions, but accomplishments do not outweigh atrocities. CSU has framed the question as if we are putting what Marshall contributed to our world on a scale and determining if it was greater than what he took away and lining the rest of us up in two tidy rows behind that question, depending on which team we’ve backed (either “racists” or “cancel-culture agents”). This is the wrong question.

Just this month, after 246 years as a nation, we confirmed the first Black woman Supreme Court Justice. Today, only 2% of all U.S. lawyers are Black women. Many of society’s positions of power begin in the legal field, especially among elected officials. This speaks to white supremacy, that after 246 years, our social system keeps Black women from entering the field that creates power. A public university should want to rectify this, yet, every day C|M|Law students, some of who have ancestral ties to slavery, sit in classrooms bearing the name of a slave master.

The framework we should use is not so binary. We are not erasing or upholding history; we are determining what is appropriate. All histories — good and bad — should live in museums, textbooks, and classrooms, so we can continue to learn from them. But when name something after someone, you honor them, which is inappropriate for anyone who contributed to the horrors of slavery. This is a question of appropriateness, not erasure.

Our generation carries the torch of the movements that came before us. In the 1800s, the movement ended slavery. In the 1900s it dismantled Jim Crow. In these 2000s, we’re called to dismantle the pervasive nature of systemic racism. We firmly believe a person’s accomplishments will never outweigh their atrocities. We do this work so the next generation can build upon ours.

Yet, even today, CSU is preparing to graduate another class of C|M|Law students with a slave master’s name on their diploma because CSU refuses to hear them. The Board of Trustees has the legal authority to call an emergency vote today if they wanted to, but they have done nothing, while other universities have done the right thing. And President Sands remains silent.

Author: Emily Forsee

Emily Forsee is an advocate, organizer, and current law student at Cleveland-State University College of Law, where she is one of five founding members of the CSU-National Lawyers Guild Chapter. Emily’s passion for equitable justice and civil rights began in Columbus Ohio, where she began her career advocating for the wave of families who lost their homes during the “Great Recession.” After moving to Cleveland, she's done Community work touching on reproductive justice, emergency food, and political education. Currently, she is a central coordinator of Right the Record; Exposing Police Violence in Cleveland. Her knowledge base centers around socio-economic systems, public benefits policy, and race, class & gender dynamics. She holds a Masters of Public Administration with a focus in Economics and Urban Management, and a Bachelors's in NonProfit Administration from Cleveland State University, but values her education from reading grassroots scholars at the library the most. She believes in building infrastructure to support liberation movements working to dismantle social harms that have historically pushed out communities by systems of power.