Published on February 26, 2020 by Morgan Black
Cumberland School of Law’s Black Law Students Association (BLSA) hosted the 26th Annual Thurgood Marshall Symposium, Thursday, Feb. 20, featuring Regina S. Edwards, U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Western District of Kentucky.
Edwards, also a current Samford parent, addressed the group about her journey to become a federal judge while encouraging them to overcome being underestimated.
Theo Edwards-Butler, a musical theater major and president of Samford’s Black Student Union, performed a musical selection prior to proudly introducing her mother.
Edwards began by sharing her own challenges that she has encountered along her journey.
“Many of you know that Theo is a musical theater major which requires her to have a strong skillset in acting, singing and dancing – in other words, she must be a triple threat,” she said. “When I look back on the challenges that I have faced, I can sum them up as a triple threat in a different way: I’m black, I’m a woman, and I’m from the mountains of eastern Kentucky – I’m literally a coal miner’s daughter. Each of these attributes carries with it stereotypes, preconceived notions of abilities, and often my own lowered expectations.”
Edwards shared one specific challenge she faced when she was in high school visiting the guidance counselor. Although she was a student with a high GPA and even higher aspirations, the counselor suggested that she lower her expectations because girls like her would have challenges pursuing higher education.
“This was one of the first times I felt underestimated,” Edwards added. “Needless to say, I did not heed her advice.”
Edwards went on to pursue two bachelor’s degrees in psychology and sociology from the University of Kentucky, followed by her Juris Doctor from Vanderbilt Law School.
“At the time when I attended law school in 1988, it was the largest number of black law students Vanderbilt had ever admitted – three women and six men,” she said. “There was such a wealth of diversity among us, but still there was no one like me. I allowed doubts to creep in, asking myself ‘how can I compete?,’ but I got past that doubt by realizing that my uniqueness was an attribute rather than an albatross.”
While preparing for her presentation, Edwards reviewed Thurgood Marshall’s life’s works.
“Beyond the accolades that are very well known, he too was often underestimated,” she said followed by detailed descriptions of challenges he faced throughout his career.
She then challenged the students in the room. “How are you underestimating your own value? When those doubts creep in, you must remind yourself that each of you has a unique voice that adds value.”
“In this room, there may be the next Thurgood Marshall,” she added. “Be ready to rise beyond all expectations and underestimations and know that you are truly capable of accomplishing all that you set out to achieve.”
In addition to her extensive and impressive legal career, Edwards also pursued and received a culinary degree in 2003. She plans to put this degree to use by restarting a volunteer cooking program for kids in local community centers in her area of Kentucky.
“We understand that there has been a long history for us, as minorities, having struggles to be in this position," said Terrell Blakesleay, the 2020 Thurgood Marshall Symposium chair and third-year law student. "But, it’s great to have someone like Judge Edwards, who has been through similar struggles, come talk to us and encourage us that we can make it, and we can overcome being underestimated.”
The event closed with presentations and remarks from Cumberland School of Law Dean Corky Strickland.
Following the closing, Judge Edwards shared words of sentiment toward the university and the law school.
"I am so honored to be a part of this program that has been going on for the last 26 years," she said. "It really speaks so highly of the Cumberland School of Law and Samford communities that they support this program and diversity efforts for the students here. Since I have a daughter in undergrad, I am just really appreciative that the school, on so many different levels, is really working to make sure that all of their voices are heard."