Through the years, the ACLU of Michigan has led the charge in a variety of impactful crusades against racial injustice. Not least among them have been lawsuits to save affirmative action, overhaul Michigan’s public defender system, hold predatory lenders accountable and abolish juvenile life sentences without parole. These, and comparable projects, demand a considerable investment of financial and human resources, and often require the cooperation and collaboration of outside lawyers, law firms, legislative advocates and allied non-profit organizations. Much of value is accomplished by these efforts.
One consequence of these cases however, is that the individuals directly affected by the underlying problems often fade into invisibility. They remain in the cases as placeholders, but the lawyers and judges take center stage and grapple furiously over legal issues – sometimes for years.
Meanwhile, the problems that gave rise to the litigation—and that caused real trauma and devastation for the plaintiffs—evolve unintentionally into abstract, academic questions to be resolved at a leisurely pace by judges who might never actually meet the individuals involved.
Racial justice advocacy, by its very nature, is at its best when there is ongoing, first-hand engagement with the flesh-and-blood human beings who are affected. This is because the most artfully crafted strategies and remedies don’t mean as much if they don’t allow those who have suffered humiliation, oppression or discrimination to achieve or regain their sense of dignity. Such is sometimes achieved even in losing battles, when those who have been beaten down are given an opportunity to personally stand up and fight back. It is sometimes easier for this to occur in small cases brought on behalf of individuals rather than in large cases where they may get lost.
In years past, the ACLU of Michigan has represented many individuals in small racial justice cases that were powerful and meaningful. In one case, a black man in his mid-20s was beaten by a racist white mob in Tuscola County. In the face of damning evidence of the guilt of the ringleaders, an all-white jury found them not guilty of all criminal charges. In partnership with the victim, the ACLU of Michigan sued the assailants and reached a favorable settlement.
In another case, two black siblings were beaten by a small racist mob in a school cafeteria in Eastpointe. The ACLU of Michigan sued the school district, but in the same way the school felt it should not have been expected to protect these young people, neither did the court.
In still another instance, black children in a Plymouth-Canton school district elementary school music class claimed they were compelled to play the roles of slaves in a classroom skit, while white children were asked to play the roles of masters by berating the children and simulating floggings. The ACLU of Michigan represented the family of one of the black children, and through the Michigan Department of Civil Rights mediation program, we worked out a favorable resolution.
Viewed up-close, these and comparable cases bring home the raw, ugly reality of the true state of race relations in contemporary America. Sterile, impersonal statistics about racial disparities and discrimination may prompt public concern, but they are no substitute for looking into the devastated eyes of a child of color who has been publicly humiliated, or even physically abused.
The ACLU’s big cases can bring about sweeping changes, but the little ones are sometimes dramatic reminders of the enormous racial challenges that remain. Time and again, they underscore the urgent need for immediate relief for countless invisible victims who suffer heroically in silence, and who are ignored by a public that prefers to believe we are closer to a post-racial America than we are.