Are we prepared for the new generation of students inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy?

Yesterday marked the 50h anniversary of the day that a man fatally shot Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., outside his hotel room in Memphis. Dr. King had traveled there to address poverty and workers’ rights – global issues of inequality that were playing out in a local arena. Not quite three years earlier, Dr. King stood next to President Lyndon Johnson as he signed the Voting Rights Act into law. The Act was a crowning achievement of a strategic fight. Peaceful activists waged the long battle to overcome legal barriers that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote. But the battle left real victims, bloodied from counter attacks often waged with weapons intended to cause serious bodily injury or death. (For a well-written account of the strategy, see Louis Manand’s piece in the New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/07/08/the-color-of-law.)

In 2018, a new group of civil rights activists have marched to protect themselves and their peers from these same weapons of death and destruction. These activists are young high-schoolers, and they have been attacked for being “brainwashed” and not “fully rational actors.” Their youth, the very thing that made them uniquely vulnerable to easily acquired assault weapons, has been used to diminish their message.

But youth have been leaders of transformative moments throughout our history. From racial segregation to the Vietnam War to nuclear weapons, students have led protest movements and created change. This new movement has garnered attention. Leaders recently met with members of Congress. They were mocked by Laura Ingraham and encouraged by Pope Francis. Supporters showed up in marches around the world. They are on a roll, and they seem completely capable of continuing the momentum. (For an interesting article on youth-led movements see Rebecca Onion’s article in Slate: https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/02/weve-had-the-same-debate-over-teen-activism-since-the-civil-rights-era.html.)

But students’ protests aren’t just focused on Congress and the NRA. College students occupied Howard University’s administration building with a list of demands, some as reasonable as developing a better system to address sexual assault and mental health issues. These students seem tenacious and confident that their collective power can make change. (See Adam Harris’s article “How the Howard University Prostests Hint at the Furure of Campus Politics”: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/04/protest-howard-university/557270/.

Many of these students will join the new surge of law school applicants who want a legal education so they can change the world. Are we prepared? Will our curricula provide these students with tools from different disciplines to help them understand what ails the nation from a variety of different perspectives? Will we create enough experiential learning opportunities to meet this generation of change agents’ needs? Will our career development offices preference Big Law over lower paying public interest jobs? When students’ activist dreams leave them with overwhelming debt, how can we help?  As we attempt to comply with educational mandates, will we abandon hard-to-measure learning outcomes? Are we equipped to teach our students leadership skills in a tech driven society? Will we provide all students a safe and inclusive place to learn? Will our teaching inspire resiliency in the face of stubborn resistance?

Law school teachers and administrators would be wise to listen to these young voices. It’s our responsibility to teach the next generation of legal actors. We must be prepared with new ideas. (And many have already have started the conversation, like Katie Redford, in her article, Attention, Law Students: Our Country and Our Planet Need You to Lead, 69 Stan. L. Rev. 1831 (2017).) We must be willing to learn new skills and solve old problems. Otherwise, our attempts at legal education may impede their progress rather build their platforms for success.

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