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Law and the Fight for Liberation: An Interview with Gloria Browne-Marshall

Image Credit: Ernest Marshall

Gloria Browne-Marshall is a civil rights attorney, renowned author, playwright, and Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College (CUNY). She has litigated cases for the Southern Poverty Law Center, Community Legal Services, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and has spoken on legal issues internationally. Professor Browne-Marshall is also a legal commentator for multiple media platforms, including CNN, CBS, and NPR, where she frequently discusses the US Supreme Court and national legal issues. In addition to founding the Law and Policy Group, a legal think tank, she has received many honors and awards, including the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Justice Award, Malcolm X Award, and the NAACP Community Service Award, for her seven produced plays. Professor Browne-Marshall’s most recent book, She Took Justice: Black Women, Law, and Power – 1619 to 1969, details the incredible activism of Black women over many centuries.

Anik Willig: What inspired you to become a civil rights attorney and activist?

Gloria Browne-Marshall: I grew up in the Midwest during desegregation busing. Initially, I was in a school where I was one of a handful of Black students, but that changed after a lot of litigation that led to busing. My hometown fought busing for a long time but eventually allowed it. Going from an environment that was all Black to one that was all white exposed me to the harsh realities I previously only saw on television. There were real prejudices and teachers who thought poorly of people because they looked like me, which gave me this passion for advocacy. 

When I went to college and saw this same racist environment play out again and again, I thought to myself, “This is not right.” So out of college, I thought of going to law school. When applying, I had given my white mailman my applications to send to law schools and I found out later that none of them were mailed. He must have thrown them all away. After not hearing back from any schools, I decided to apply to one more and got in. I wasn’t sure what kind of lawyer I wanted to be until I took a labor law and civil rights class. I realized then that this is what I wanted to do, and I still have the same excitement and passion now that I had then.

AW: Can you speak a bit about your playwriting work? How do you take themes from your legal work and incorporate them into theater?

 GBM: I am so influenced by James Baldwin. When I was a kid and saw this skinny Black guy on TV talking about civil rights and activism, I told myself, “That’s who I want to be.” I write my plays based on the injustices and hypocrisy of this country. For example, I wrote a play called “Shot,” which is about a Black teenager who was shot by a white police officer. He gets to tell his own story and seek out vengeance and the truth from this white officer. When I want to express something, I feel I have to create the world to express it. That’s where playwriting and fiction come in. I have to create a world in which there’s a platform to express what I have inside.

AW: You founded the Law and Policy Group, a community think tank publishing the only ongoing report on the state of Black women in the United States. How did the organization come about and what are its goals for legal advocacy? 

GBM: While teaching full time at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, I started this nonprofit called the Law and Policy Group as a place to express my legal advocacy. The nonprofit publishes a report called “The Report on the Status of Black Women and Girls.” It is the only nonprofit that’s had an ongoing report on the state of Black women and girls in America. As a constitutional law professor, I knew that people of African descent played a key role in creating a social justice aspect of our US Constitution. People of African descent put the conscience in our Constitution. It wasn’t until African Americans began to challenge the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment that the Constitution became what we know it as today. This publication allows people to see very clearly where African Americans are mentioned in the Constitution. The Law and Policy Group’s motto is: “We bridge the gap between laws, policies, and the people governed by them.” It’s an organization for legal advocacy as well as for information, education, and empowerment.

AW: You wrote that the Thirteenth Amendment still legalizes slavery as punishment for a crime. What are some other ways American law continues to enforce racial oppression?

GBM: The law in this country, up to this moment, has been used more as a tool of oppression than one of liberation. The Constitution has been used as a continuous tool for oppression. Voting has been continuously made difficult, and this Supreme Court continues to allow voter suppression, for example. There are people that continue to lose their right to vote because of felony convictions, and the Supreme Court upholds this. The Court also upholds a very low threshold for police violence against civilians. The fight for equality under the law is changing, but the criminal justice system in this country has never had true national reform. You can’t have people treated as equals when you have an oppressive criminal justice system that’s discriminatory on its face.

 AW: Your new book, She Took Justice, speaks of so many incredible women who I had never even heard of or been taught about in school. Do you think there needs to be more reform in teaching about the history of America from a not-so-whitewashed perspective?

GBM: These women went beyond what the traditional woman could do in their time, leaving a mark on history that I was able to discuss in my book. By speaking at rallies, conventions, and putting out literature, they were fighting against a culture that thought they should not even exist. Once they died, the history books even tried to get rid of them altogether. That is the sad part: People didn’t want these women to be in existence back then, and I don’t think people want them in existence now. Many people see the work of Black women as an anomaly, though that’s not true.

 AW: Your book talks about powerful women from 1619 to 1969. Was there a reason behind just including these years and not talking about today’s women activists?

 GBM: I want another book to be about the modern Black power movement, especially about issues of intersectionality. Black women have often had to force their own doors open without the support of white women advocating for their interests. White women have not often stood up for female values. They’re standing up for white women’s concerns alone, without trying to understand Latinas and without understanding Native women’s struggles, for instance. It is all about white women. It’s that trickle-down idea: If white women get life improved, then the rest of us will have a sense of self-enhancement as well. This is the same method that men use to hold onto power. So, essentially, white women became an arm of white men. Even in the modern era, Black women are standing alone. That’s why the issues covered in another book would be very different. There’s a thread that goes through it, which is empowerment and law, but they are very different when that break appears in 1970 and goes forward. 

AW: Do you think people you disagree with, like Candace Owens or even Kamala Harris, can still represent the empowerment of Black women?

GBM: Yeah, I mean it takes a lot to be a politician. To be a Black woman throwing your hat in the ring against all these white men constantly running for president every year, like Shirley Chisholm who ran for president in 1972, that is bold. You are not going to agree with everything everyone does. So yes, these people are bold and brash and have their own ideas, which I respect. And still, I have criticisms. For example, Kamala Harris’ criminal justice bills did not contain prosecutorial reform. I even have criticisms of Barack Obama. I think he could have spoken out more on Black issues—I don’t know why he was so tepid. I think all these leaders have the boldness and brashness to seek office. They have ideas that I might disagree with at a certain point in time, but I think it is important to remember that Black women each have their own mindset. We are not a monolithic group. I think because there are so many differences in our backgrounds and opinions, we are going to have disagreements. But I think you can disagree with someone without discrediting the person entirely unless their ideology is actually opposite to yours. Still, in some cases, there is not enough ideological overlap for me to support a person of color just because they are a person of color. 

AW: In your book, you decide to speak about the “Black woman” as a collective, rather than individually. Do you mind expanding on this decision?

GBM: I’m so glad you asked that question, thank you. I decided to write this book in a very unique way. It is written from the perspective of the collective. The “Black woman” is a phrase that I use in the book. And what I wanted to speak to is the journey of the Black woman as a collective. Within that collective, of course, there’s a myriad of ideas, backgrounds, and ambitions, but these people’s experience is broader than the story of any individual person. The law plays such a role in undermining the progress of people of color, and when you think of the Black woman in the context of oppression, it’s just a miracle of miracles that the light of her own humanity stayed within the collective. The collective story demonstrates all she had to overcome.

AW: You previously mentioned prosecutorial reform. What do you mean by that and how can that take place?

GBM: Prosecutorial reform is necessary for any type of national criminal justice reform. Prosecutors are the people we rely on to present evidence, and they have governmental power. The power of the prosecutor is so oversized in our criminal justice system that the information given to the judge is only the information the prosecutor wants the judge to know. Prosecutors can withhold exculpatory evidence, which is evidence that can prove someone’s innocence. If the prosecutor can do a great job in covering a civilian defendant, they can’t cower when it’s a police officer defendant. If that is the case, we won’t have justice. That’s why we need a whistleblower’s office within every prosecutorial office in the country. We have a cult of silence and protection when it comes to prosecutors. We should not have a double standard when it comes to police officers versus civilians.

AW: How should the carceral system be reformed? And should this reform include defunding the police and investing more funds into community organizations?

GBM: I think reform can include defunding. I think police officers know they’re in over their heads. They know they are doing a job they were never meant to do, mostly because this country has criminalized everything. It uses criminal laws as a social mechanism to force people to act in particular ways. And the law is a codification of values put into place by certain people who have been in power for the last 400 years. There is a parallel between the creation of law in 1619 and the arrival of Africans into Jamestown. It was a perfect storm for oppression. Criminal justice laws—from fugitive slave laws to present laws—have been used to crush people of color and maintain an artificial sense of white supremacy. So it is important that we not only learn about the racist mechanisms that are in place, but that we tear them down.

AW: After so many centuries of using the law to subjugate marginalized people and communities, would you say there’s any way to use law as a tool of liberation, not oppression?

GBM: Yes, here’s the good news. I am talking to you right now because so many people fought by using the law to liberate themselves and liberate communities. So there has to be a continuous fight and it has to be a fight of the body, mind, and spirit. You have to know what happened in the past to better arm yourself for the fight you’re in right now, but you also have to have a vision for the future. And that’s what I think is missing right now. We are very equipped to fight, and we are learning about what has happened in the past. But what’s the vision for the future? By 2045 this country is going to be majority people of color, and conservatives know this. That’s why we see this stranglehold on law and the suppression of voting rights, criminal justice, and reproductive rights. People of color and people who are of justice and goodwill and equality need to realize we have to have a vision for 2045. What do we want this country to look like? Going in and defunding a police system requires a vision. We need to look at the laws that are effective in other places and choose those laws and figure out how to get rid of what’s not working in our communities. 

We need to continue to use litigation, legislation, and protest. That, for me, is a trifecta for social change when it’s put in place with vision. We won’t be able to fight back against the people who have a very strong vision of white supremacy if we don’t have a vision for the future, or else we will always be responding and reacting to their vision as opposed to having one of our own. And hopefully anyone that seeks justice will read She Took Justice: The Black Woman, Law, and Power to realize how long we’ve been in the fight and how many warriors we need to keep the fight going.

 *This interview has been edited for length and clarity.