Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Standing for Right at an Early Age

Remarks on Accepting the American Bar Association's Spirit of Excellence Award, February 12, 2011

By Leah Ward Sears

Thank you so very much for this award. It symbolizes many things to me: primarily that I have never been all alone in this world, that human beings do care about each other, that I’ve been very blessed to have had all these years the love and support of my family (my mother and father and children) and my husband Haskell Ward, and also that I made the absolute right choice when I joined Schiff Hardin last year. I have truly appreciated the opportunity being a member of our firm and the opportunity it has afforded me to continue to help those who need help and encouragement.

In the sixties when we were in the heat of segregation, my 2 brothers and I integrated a school in Lanham, Maryland. There were three white girls in my fifth grade class and it was no understatement to say that they hated black people. And they let me know how they felt...every single day. They told me I was ignorant...because all black people were ignorant. They told me I was ugly, because all black girls are ugly. And they told me that I was not worthy to attend “their school”.

One day at Lanham Elementary School, the only friends I had, two other white girls, Kim and Cindy, asked me to join a volleyball game out in the yard. The 5th grade girls were going to play against the 6th grader.

“Do you want to play, “ they asked?

I said sure.

When we went around the building for the game, there stood the three mean white girls with the volleyball in hand. I was the only black girl in fifth grade and the only black kid on the playground that day.

One of the little white girls took one look at me and said loud enough for all to hear, “Ain’t no nigga gonna touch my volleyball.” I felt about two inches tall...completely humiliated. My mouth went dry. I turned and started to walk away.

It was at that point that I heard a few words that changed my life forever.

My friends Kim and Cindy, said, “Well, if she can’t touch your ball, we can’t touch it either.” And they put their arms on my shoulder and we walked away together. I knew from that point on, that despite all the racism I had seen and had known in my short life, there were some people who had a different heart. Perhaps they were even color blind. And not only did I want those people to be my friends, but I, too, wanted to be one of those people.

Today some say that that justice is blind. What that is supposed to mean is that justice is impartial, it is fair, it doesn’t play favorites. It is supposed to mean that it doesn’t matter in a court of law whether you are young or old, male or female, rich or poor, college educated or barely literate, black or white. Blind justice sees no differences and makes no distinctions. Rather, it is guided exclusively by principles of law, and not swayed by power, politics or popular opinion polls.

I long for the day when justice is far-seeing and perceptive and discerning. I long for a justice with eyes wide open, a justice that never loses sight of each person’s humanity, a justice that never lets the wrongly accused languish in prison.

I long for justice that sees that every person in the judicial system could be my brother or my sister, my mother or my father or my child. I long for a justice that is guided by a vision, not of building bigger jails to contain more and more men, but a vision of building a better world where all people can be free.

I long for the day when more Americans are willing to stand for what’s right alongside a person others ridicule, or make fun of, or laugh at, because they different or speaks with an accent. One day you many of you here today will be managers of great law firms and high ranking political leaders and presidents of colleges and corporations. Make up your mind that you will do the right thing when you make decisions that affect people’s lives.

But you don’t need to wait until you are somebody of influence to make a difference. You are where you are right now to have an impact. So get to it.

45 years ago, two 10 year old girls made all the difference in my life. And that’s why I’m able to stand here now and say thank you from the bottom of my heart.


Leah Ward Sears, a partner in the law firm of Schiff Hardin, previously served as Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court.

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