Three student organizations from Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law teamed up recently to present “Bridging the Gap: Walking with Experience,” a panel discussion on race featuring Houston Brown, retired presiding Jefferson County Circuit judge, and John L. Carroll, professor and former dean of Cumberland School of Law.
The event was well-attended by students, faculty, staff, professionals and others who came to hear about and discuss a very timely topic in the Birmingham community and nation – race and how it relates to the law, as well as the social aspects of racial disparity.
Cumberland School of Law’s Student Body Association, Black Law Students Association, and Cordell Hull Speakers Forum hosted the event, led by current law students Trey Perdue, Kimberly Hawkins and Andrew Clay, presidents of those organizations, respectively. The event was moderated by Martha Reeves Cook, an alumna and Birmingham-area mediator and attorney.
In addition to scripted questions provided by the hosting student organizations, the judges answered many questions fielded from the audience.
Cook said she was honored to moderate the discussion between two men whom she deeply respects. She said she especially admired their ability to speak frankly, yet civilly, to one another about their own race, their different upbringings, and the state of our country and the criminal justice system. She also complemented the student organization leaders and staff who spearheaded the event.
“The students who organized and prepared this event were courageous and bold to tackle such a difficult topic and to provide students, faculty, and professionals from the community a forum in which to speak openly and honestly about difficult and important issues; issues which must be discussed over and over in our society to effectuate real, long-lasting change to our country's unfair criminal justice system and our hundreds of years of racial division,” said Cook.
Brown and Carroll crossed paths while students at Cumberland School of Law and formed a friendship that has endured for decades.
Brown grew up during the Civil Rights Era in the “Dynamite Hill” neighborhood of Birmingham. He was the first African American to receive his entire legal education at Cumberland School of Law, graduating in 1973. He was in private practice until 2000, when then-Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman appointed him as a civil division judge of the 10th Circuit in Jefferson County. Brown’s fellow judges unanimously elected him as presiding judge, making him the first African-American presiding judge of the 10th Circuit. He served in that position from 2000 until his retirement in 2015.
Carroll was born in Washington, D.C. He entered the military after college as a Marine flight officer during the Vietnam War, where he flew more than 200 combat missions. Upon returning home, he earned his Juris Doctorate magna cum laude from Cumberland School of Law in 1974. After graduation, Carroll was named legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. He served as a United States magistrate judge in the Middle District of Alabama from 1986 to 2001, when he became dean of the law school. After 12 years, he stepped down as dean but continues to teach courses.
Cook said she commends everyone associated with the event for bringing difficult topics into the light and addressing them, and hopes to see more events of this type scheduled at Samford University, Cumberland School of Law and in the Birmingham community.
Polly Manuel is marketing and communications coordinator for Cumberland School of Law.