A call for socially conscious lawyers at Elon Law's MLK forum

Speakers at Elon Law’s seventh annual Martin Luther King Jr. forum encouraged lawyers and law students to stand tall in their actions to address civil and political rights both in law school and in their legal careers.

Elon University School of Law’s annual event to honor the life work and mission of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. received a healthy turnout while attendees listened to inspiring thoughts from Dean Luke Bierman, Associate Dean Faith Rivers James, Professor Antonette Barilla and attorney Mark Cummings. 

Rivers James recalled oppressive and violent treatment of African Americans, the sit-in movement that started in the law school’s hometown of Greensboro, NC and other staged segregation protests around the country.

“Dr. King’s philosophy and his leadership helped us make great strides in American society,” Rivers James said. “For old and young, alike, the movement affirmed the principle of civil disobedience, and made an arrest record for a noble cause a badge of honor.”

“When Dr. King appeared on the world stage to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, he said ‘I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their body, education and culture for their minds and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirit,’” said Rivers James. “Dr. King never lost sight of the plight of the poor. He was concerned enough, he was compassionate enough and he was courageous enough to fight for economic justice. He stood up for those who were being left behind by a society that ignored their needs.”

Barilla spoke of Dr. King as one of the world’s great leaders, and she brought to light an international perspective on Dr. King’s humanitarian efforts.

“There exists a greater world population who knows and reveres Dr. King … because his message speaks to the struggle of all of humanity and transcends culture and continent,” Barilla said. “He emphasized the economic rights that his movement championed as human rights – as rights that transcend borders of all countries.”

While recalling that Dr. King insisted that America must also speak for the overseas poor, Barilla encouraged listeners to appreciate the full worth of an extraordinary American whose message continues to shape the beliefs of people across the globe.

“Dr. Martin Luther King insisted that with American power comes a commensurate degree of moral responsibility in the world, and not simply a right to freely exercise power,” Barilla said. “He believed that U.S. foreign policy and international relations should stand on moral principles of justice.”

Cummings spoke directly to law students, discussing the call to social justice lawyering and connecting that responsibility to the recent racially charged events that took place in Ferguson, Mo.; New York City; and Cleveland, Ohio.

“Our collective social conscious should be on high alert as we are inundated with anecdotal evidence of a justice system that is less blind and intentional in its disparate impact on minorities and the economic underclass,” Cummings said.

“A disproportionate amount of the nation’s economic underclass just happens to be people of color,” said Cummings, also discussing the different treatment of the economically underprivileged in insurance company valuations of injuries in settlement offers and in jury verdicts for personal injury cases. “It is the lawyer who must persuade the court to say what law is. It is you who will persuade the court to take a stand against social injustice.”

The forum included video commentary from several Elon law students regarding the social issues that they face today both in their education as well as in their future law career. Some of the insights are noted below, as well as the three-part video series.

“His legacy wasn’t just about equality and fairness,” said Meghan Smith L’17. “It was about respect and tolerance and love.”

“We as human beings have to be involved with the quest for justice,” said Ernest Lewis L’15.

“There’s no amount that our justice system can fix if we’re not willing to acknowledge that there are racist assumptions that go into every interaction that we have,” said Shoshanna Silverberg L’15.

“Really listening and interacting with people in your community and looking at one another as human beings is fundamental to us being activists and good attorneys and agents for social change,” said Diamond Zephir L’16.


Cummings challenged students that to be socially conscious lawyers, they have to start with themselves, challenge who they are and challenge those things that make them what they are.

“When you leave that client, how will you sleep at night? Will it be knowing that you left everything on that courtroom floor, that you argued every point, that you fought for your client, that you made sure that he or she had every opportunity that a person of the majority background would have,” said Cummings. “If you’ve already said yes to that, then you’ve already heeded the call to social justice lawyering.”

“We cannot confine the lessons of Dr. King to the civil rights struggle of one people in one particular place at one time,” said Barilla. “He did not intend for his message to be contained. He was clear that his advocacy was for rights that are fundamental to all humans.”

“Maybe you can help the bootless get some shoes and some straps so they’re prepared to run the race for economic opportunity,” said James to law students in the audience. “With your leadership and service, perhaps we can finally resolve what Dr. King called the American dilemma, and help our nation live up to the calling of our noble creed that all men are created equal. If we can meet that challenge and address that unfinished agenda, Dr. King’s quest for civil rights and economic justice will no longer be a dream deferred, but a reality in our time.”