As we approach the end of 2015, I have been reflecting on the events of the last year and a half, and the work of The Center for Civil Rights. Since coming to UNC in June of 2014, I have been immersed in the history and the contemporary workings of North Carolina. As an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund for twenty-five years, and the Justice Department before that, I litigated civil rights cases all over the South, including North Carolina. I have deep family roots in the state, including relatives known and unknown. Yet, it is one thing to know a place from a distance and even to spend time there, and quite another to live here. Upon arriving in Chapel Hill, even before all of my family’s possessions were unpacked, I appeared before a UNC Board of Governors committee charged with reviewing university centers, which included the Center for Civil Rights. It was not the welcome I hoped for, but it was an introduction to many actors in the UNC system, including those at the Chapel Hill campus. I watched with dismay as the doors of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity was forced to close, as well as two other centers within the University system. The Center for Civil Rights survived the Board of Governors review, and although we will face further challenges, our work continues.
In 2015 we continued our focus on educational equity. Julius Chambers devoted a good part of his legal career to desegregation of public schools, as have I. The Center has been steadfast in its commitment to these issues, not because it is locked into doing the same thing it has always done, but because education remains the engine of opportunity. Even in 2015, race and poverty concentration continue to limit quality education in a powerful way. The U.S. Supreme Court has effectively abandoned Brown v. Board of Education’s mandate to desegregate intentionally segregated schools. In this vein, on a disappointing note, in 2015 the Center lost an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in its Pitt County desegregation and educational improvement case, in spite of an earlier victory in the same court that held out the promise of relief. Yet many school districts are still subject to court orders, and many have never complied with the Constitution’s mandate to remedy intentionally created segregation. The Center has not given up on the promise of Brown, and we continue to work with advocates and parents who seek quality education for their children. The Center is part of the National Coalition for School Diversity; the Center co-sponsored and its staff members participated in its September 15, 2015 Howard Law School conference entitled “21st Century School Integration: Building a Movement for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion”.
This year the Center filed suit in state court challenging the operation of three systems of economically and racially isolated public schools in poverty impacted Halifax County. The virtually all-black Halifax and Weldon City school districts rank at the very bottom of North Carolina’s public schools in academic achievement, and the majority white and more highly ranked Roanoke Rapids City School District operates as the enclave for those white students who attend the county’s public schools. The Center filed suit to vindicate students’ right under the North Carolina Constitution to a sound basic education. The suit seeks to end the separate operation of three inefficient, unequal and segregated school systems. The Center also filed an administrative complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights on behalf of individuals and organizations in Harnett County challenging discriminatory student assignments and operation of unequal public schools. Another Title VI complaint filed in late 2014 with the U.S. Department of Education remains pending. It alleges that Duplin County Board of Education adopted a facilities plan that deprives African American students of equal access to educational resources.
With Earth Justice, in 2014 the Center also filed a Title VI complaint against the NC Department of Environmental Quality, alleging that it failed to carry out its responsibilities when it permitted hog farming operations in Duplin County to operate in environmentally unsafe and racially discriminatory conditions, with disparate impact on African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics. Thus, as reflected in education and environmental discrimination, Duplin County represents a community with which the Center has established ongoing relationships with representatives of poor and minority communities that are disempowered and subject to multiple disadvantages.
The Center’s longstanding Title VI complaint with the EPA concerning the Rogers-Eubanks Road Neighborhood Association’s complaints about municipal services in this historically black Chapel Hill-Carrboro community stopped plans for siting Orange County’s solid waste landfill; but other adverse zoning practices are still at issue.
The Center’s lawyers have played an important role in the pursuit of legislatively authorized compensation for individuals who were involuntarily sterilized by the State over four decades under authority of 1933 and 1937 Public Laws establishing a State Eugenics Board. These involuntary sterilizations continued until the 1970’s. Center lawyer Elizabeth McLaughlin Haddix recently argued one of the “eugenics” cases in the North Carolina Court of Appeals, and the Center has strategized with other lawyers who represent clients sterilized pursuant to the State’s eugenics program.
Civil Rights Oral Advocacy Support
The Center has followed in the tradition of the Legal Defense Fund and provided moot court preparation for its own and other lawyers who argue civil rights cases in state and federal appellate courts, as well as in the North Carolina Supreme Court. These practice arguments are often held in UNC School of Law’s courtroom. Lawyers and professors participate as judges, and students are invited to observe, with an opportunity to ask those arguing the case questions. These oral advocacy sessions provide valuable preparation for lawyers preparing arguments in civil rights cases, and expose UNC students to a broad variety of substantive civil rights laws, and learning opportunities through oral argument observation. The Center’s oral advocacy program connects the Center and the Law School with the civil rights bar throughout North Carolina.
The Inclusion Project
The Center’s Inclusion Project documents the legacy of segregated communities in North Carolina. The Project maps demographic information on school segregation, poverty concentrations, housing patterns, solid waste and toxic waste dump sites, election districting, and other data that present comprehensive portraits of the lives of North Carolinians. The Center’s report entitled “The State of Exclusion” presented an empirical analysis of the legacy of segregated communities in North Carolina. Inclusion and exclusion data and mapping presents powerful and compelling information that communities, policy makers, advocates, scholars, funders, and ordinary citizens can utilize for myriad purposes.
In 2015 the Center made numerous presentations at Law School events. Over the year, the Center hosted six summer legal interns, three externs, two undergraduate work-study students. It also welcomed a new attorney-fellow. The summer interns included five law students and one Global Studies student who holds law degrees in her home county of South Africa. In the Spring of 2015 the Center hosted the first LLM student to participate in the UNC externship program, a student from Kazakhstan. In the Fall, the Center hosted two externs for the newly developed six-hour externship program. Each of these students spent about twenty hours a week at the Center during the academic semester giving them the opportunity to experience the daily practice of civil rights law.
In October the Center welcomed a new attorney-fellow, Brent Ducharme, a 2015 UNC Law graduate and a 2014 Center summer intern. Brent quickly became a valuable Center asset, writing on education issues, drafting briefs, and conducting research.
The Center also continued The Wills Project, developed to provide intensive practical skills training for law students while providing wills, living wills, and powers of attorney for those in under-resourced communities. Recent wills clinics were held in Rocky Mount and Chapel Hill. Clients received needed legal services while law students learned how to draft legal documents while they honed their client interaction skills.
In yet another project that provided valuable services to North Carolinians and important legal experience for law students, the Center trained law students to locating polling places, answer questions on voting laws and assist voters with Election Day questions. This dual purpose - to provide the citizens of North Carolina nonpartisan assistance in exercising their most important citizenship responsibility, and to provide important legal training to law students - is accomplished under the auspices of the North Carolina Election Protection Hotline, in turn part of a national nonpartisan voter advocacy and information program. The Center operated the call center in 2014 and will operate it again in 2016, with the additional task of informing voters of recent changes in North Carolina’s voting laws.
During the 2014-2015 academic year, and again in the Fall of 2015, the Center hosted several lunch-time events designed to educate and encourage discussion among students. It also screened documentaries about civil rights lawyers, and Center staff participated in debates and presentations with student groups, including BLSA, the Lawyers Guild, and the Federalist Society at UNC and and at other institutions.
In conclusion, the UNC Center for Civil Rights operates at the nexus of the Law School’s mission to educate and train its students in an important area of practice, and the University’s mission to serve the people of North Carolina. The Center works with other departments, centers, and programs within the UNC system with its academic mission at the heart of all that it does. It works on behalf of the State’s most vulnerable individuals, and it is committed to providing opportunity to the poor and the disadvantaged, and to addressing the legacy of racial discrimination within the State.
While operating under the auspices of the University of North Carolina the Center for Civil Rights does not receive University funding for its operation or programs, which rely on private funding by foundations, corporations, and individuals.
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Posted by Theodore M. Shaw (Ted) on Mon. December 21, 2015 10:34 AM