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Marshall Law: The Bear on My Back (Novel Excerpt)

Thelma St. James had chosen Spelman College over other Historically Black colleges and universities because of her mother.  Hilda St. James had attended the all-girls school but dropped out when she was four months pregnant with Thelma.  Thelma had wanted to make her mother proud by fulfilling her mother’s unfulfilled dream.  But Hilda had encouraged her daughter to do it for herself, not for her.

Thelma hadn’t been back to Memphis since 1986, the day she gave her mother a long, hearty hug, and then got into her Uncle Otis’ car for the six-hour drive to Atlanta.  The night before, Thelma and her mother had sat in the back yard talking.  Hilda told her daughter to never return to Memphis, at least not until after she had walked across a stage to accept her degree.  And during nightly telephone conversations, she encouraged her to steer clear of the “niggas” who just wanted to “hit it and forget it” rather than put a ring on it.  Thelma had responded in kind, boldly predicting that she would graduate in three years.

Graduating early had been important to Thelma.  She had something to prove.  During her first three years of high school, she was more follower than leader.  She hung with a group of neighborhood girls that called themselves the Hood Rats.  Red was their favorite color for good reason.  They were aligned with the Oakville Gangsters, or OGs, a group of young and old, Black thugs that terrorized residents of Southeast Memphis’ Oakville area, and self-identified with the Compton, California Bloods.

Many of Oakville’s wannabe thugs lived right beside Thelma and her mother, in the Walter Simmons Estates housing development.  As a young child, Thelma grew up idolizing these cats.  Many of them would roll through the neighborhood in nice cars with spinning rims.  Their necks adorned with gold chains, their fingers and wrists expensive jewelry.  So when one of her freshmen classmates, Michelle “Eminem” Mason, told her how the Hood Rats were raking in dough by serving as mules for the OGs, Thelma wanted in.  A mule in this sense is someone who smuggles and hides drugs for OG-affiliated gangsters.

Hilda never knew how connected and involved Thelma was with the OGs.  She also didn’t know that, at 15 years of age, Thelma once had had consensual, unprotected sex with no fewer than ten teenage boys, all OG members, during an all -night orgy and drinking party at BMW dealership owner Brian “B-Smooth” Sampson’s ten thousand square foot mansion.  Fortunately for her, her mother had taken her down to the clinic a few months prior to get her on the pill.  Therefore, the only complication she had from her initiation rite was a yeast infection that was treated immediately and cured.  But by letting these boys have their way with her, she opened herself up to these same boys approaching her again for second and third helpings.

Thelma hid and smuggled drugs for her OG brothers for most of her sophomore year (1983-84), a portion of that following summer.  She took a job working the cash register at the neighborhood Kroger so her mother wouldn’t become overly suspicious of her whereabouts, but, more importantly, how she was earning her money.  Having a part-time job became the alibi she needed to discreetly transport cocaine bricks to the next person in the supply chain.  The product would ultimately wind up in the hands of the OGs’ number one client group – White Anglo-Saxon Protestant males.  But you would have never known this by the way the Shelby County Police Department patrolled the predominantly Black Southeast Memphis area.

But her service as an OG mule came to a screeching halt midway through the summer of 1984.  The Shelby County Police Department had conducted a targeted sting operation that led to B-Smooth’s arrest, as well as several members of his OG drug peddling operation.  Fortunately for Thelma, none of the Hood Rats were ever implicated.  While the OGs were driven by their love of money and power, they would die before rolling over on the young women who helped funnel product into the Memphis market.  For Thelma, this was a relieving sign.  However, it was Hilda St. James who gave Thelma the impetus she needed to exchange her evil ways for more noble causes.

“What’s this?” Hilda asked.  She held a rolled up bundle of one hundred dollars bills in her left hand.  “You dealing?”

Thelma had been busy completing a homework assignment at the kitchen table.  But when she saw her mother holding her cash, she leapt from the chair, snatching the bundle from her mother.

“Why you messing with my stuff, Ma?” she angrily exclaimed.  “That’s money I saved up from work.”

Hilda squinted as the corners of her mouth tightened.  “You lying.  Gotta be over two thousand dollars in that roll.  I know Kroger ain’t paying you that good.”  She sat in one of the side chairs.  “Besides, I found it under your mattress when I was changing your sheets.  Should be in the bank collecting interest.  What’s going on, girl?”

After a moment of careful consideration, Thelma spent the next hour and a half telling her mother everything.  When she had nothing more to confess, she anxiously awaited what she thought would be an explosive response from her mother. 

But Hilda didn’t offer one.  Instead, she reached across the table and took her daughter’s hand into her own.  “Thank you.”

“For what, Ma?”

“For telling me the truth.  Just know it would have broken my heart if you had been caught up in all that mess.”  She then breathed in deeply.  “I still remember that sixth grade paper you wrote, the one you wrote about Wilma Rudolph.  It was so good.  And I thought you were so smart.  Told me then that you were going to college.  Not to run track like Wilma, but to become a lawyer.  But all that talk ended when you started hanging with that girl.  Michelle.  You still want to go to college, don’t you?”

Thelma shrugged her shoulders before nervously tapping her pencil on the legal pad.  “I guess so.  But Spelman ain’t gonna take me now, Ma.  I got a two point three GPA.  I need at least a two five to even be considered.”

“Get to work then,” Hilda replied, standing.  “Become the person God created you to be.”

Right then and there, Thelma committed herself to bringing her grades up. Ds and Fs were replaced with Bs and Cs, with two or three As sprinkled in for good measure. Consequently, she graduated from Memphis’ Sheffield High School with the two point five grade point average she needed to be considered for enrollment at most American colleges and universities.

Thelma chose Spelman College in Atlanta over Tennessee State University in Nashville.  Her first three months on campus saw her reflecting on her previous associations with the Hood Rats and Oakville Gangsters, how God had shielded her from incrimination. Because she became overly concerned about the dynamics that prevented the vast majority of Black Americans from obtaining a semblance of this country’s prosperity, she decided to pursue her undergraduate degree in Sociology with a minor in African American Studies. She was once part of the problem. Now, she wanted to be one of the ones devising solutions to these problems.

Even though Thelma did graduate in three years as her class’ salutatorian, she knew going to an HBCU had been a risky move. Risky because most employers didn’t think an HBCU degree was worth the paper it was printed on. So, when she had a chance meeting with Harvard University Law Professor Reshonda Gates in 1990 – a Spelman graduate herself – at a child abuse prevention conference in Nashville, Tennessee, she had no idea her fortunes were about to change.  Professor Gates was one of the nation’s most revered legal scholars. More importantly, she was black.  When she was a lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, and not a Harvard Law School professor, she investigated claims of work-related prejudice, racism and discrimination.

But it was her ties to former United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Law Professor Derrick Bell that impressed her the most. 

Marshall was the chief lawyer in the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas case, where the judges ruled that segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.  Bell, on the other hand, won similar civil rights cases, mostly in the Southeastern United States, but obtained prominence for the development of Critical Race Theory.  CRT posited that racism is so deeply rooted in the makeup of American society that it has been able to reassert itself after each successive wave of reform aimed at eliminating it.  Therefore, many of the progressive lawyers of the day used it to dismantle systematic racism.   

As they continued to chat that evening at the bar on the basement level of the Doubletree Hotel, Professor Gates told Thelma about her ties to Justice Marshall, how she clerked for him when he was on the Supreme Court, how she considered him a mentor even.  She said he motivated her to excel in school, major in Pre-Law, pass the bar, and then secure employment with the DOJ.   

Professor Gates had taken a sip from her martini glass. “How do you want to be remembered?” she had asked. “What do you want engraved on your tombstone?”

Thelma had taken more than a minute to ponder this question.  “I don’t know,” she replied. “I always saw myself just being a social anthropologist, someone who studied the issues that keep Black people from progressing.  Devise solutions for them. But after I graduated, with an A average mind you, the only job I could find was with the Knox County Department of Social Services. Love my job, but I feel like I left a lot on the table.”

“How so?”

Thelma’s left arm fell from the cushioned bar as she spun her barstool toward Professor Gates. “Just don’t feel like I’m making much of a difference. Yes, I’m completing CPS investigations that send mean-spirited parents to jail, but I always envisioned myself doing more.  Hell, I was born in 1968, on March 20, fifteen days before Dr. King was assassinated. I didn’t fully understand the significance of this date when I was in high school. I was too busy running, with the wrong crowd. But I did at Spelman. My black professors there reminded us that we are the Black Diaspora’s Talented Tenth, and we are obligated to use our skill sets to force America to do right by its Black citizens.”

Professor Gates had smirked before tucking one of her misplaced braids behind her ear. “And those professors were right. We all share that obligation. The question you must answer for yourself is how do you get there? More importantly, though, you need to know what you want your contribution to be. Will it be blatant, in your face, or subtle, more behind the scenes?”

The white, clean-cut bartender had interrupted their conversation, placing another martini on the bar in front of Professor Gates. He used his eyes to gauge Thelma’s desire for another Screwdriver.  Thelma had shaken her head no. He had given her a thumbs-up as he turned to check on the other patrons seated around the oval-shaped bar.   

“You should apply to Harvard, our law school. I don’t know what it is, but I’m getting a positive vibe from you. The way you carry yourself, present yourself to others and me. It’s a very charismatic vibe. You would make a great defense attorney.”

Thelma had mulled over that last sentence. At the time, she didn’t know what that meant, but it became much clearer once she started pursuing her law degree at Harvard under Professor Gates’ tutelage and mentorship. By the time she graduated from Harvard with her Juris Doctorate degree in 1995, and ultimately passed the Massachusetts state bar examination, she knew she was wholly committed to defending the rights of Black Americans who had been wrongfully accused of crimes. 

But it was Thelma’s apprenticeship with the Thurgood Marshall Law Group’s School for Social and Economic Justice, while she pursued her jurisprudence degree, that solidified this commitment. 

As an apprentice, Thelma had to attend several workshops, seminars and retreats that were mostly held throughout the year on the campuses of historically black colleges and universities like Howard University, Morehouse College, Spelman College and Morgan State University.  Many of the sessions were facilitated by MLG’s three founding principals – Professor Gates, Morehouse’s Kelvin Cochran and Columbia’s Malcolm King – but other Black law professors and Black SSEJ graduates also served on the faculty, freely sharing their informed insights.    

The most intimate exchanges between SSEJ faculty and students occurred between meetings, at the Great Smokey Mountain retreats.  Thelma had learned that MLG’s principals purchased land near the foothills of the Chimney Top mountains, and then proceeded to develop and operate the black owned and operated Sojourner Vista Mountain Resort and Conference Center.  The center was open to the public throughout the calendar year, but the months of February and June were literally designated as Blackout months, with the Social and Economic Justice Conference being held over a five-day period the second week in October.  The luxurious rooms, about 150 units, would be occupied by a predominantly Black assortment of lawyers, intellectuals, and students (as well as their diverse group of allies) for the purpose of researching and discussing the underpinnings of systemic racism while simultaneously developing practical strategies for its eradication.  Thelma used the time they had between sessions to network with faculty members and her fellow SSEJ students.  Developing authentic relationships with other like-minded individuals was what the MLG principals wanted, and Thelma wasn’t one to disappoint.    

But she grimaced hard after reading the Knoxville News-Sentinels’ front page story.  Fort Sanders security guard Roscoe Baker was reportedly stabbed with a sling blade knife during an altercation with UT sprinter Jason Black.  Baker was in critical condition after being taken by ambulance to the Fort Sanders Medical Center.  Black had yet to be apprehended by the police.   

Thelma read the story while seated behind her desk in her law practice’s Downtown Knoxville office, which overlooked the Tennessee River to the left, Neyland Stadium to the right.  Even as she read the story, Thelma knew Tennessee’s Stand Your Ground legislation would come under intense scrutiny. 

A sinking feeling consumed Thelma.  The recently passed legislation benefitted more Whites than Blacks.  Consequently, she would have a difficult time convincing what would undoubtedly be a majority-white jury that Baker was the aggressor.  However, she had high hopes that this sentiment would change once she had a chance to hear Jason’s side of the story.

But she wondered if even that would be enough.  She recounted the cases of recent Black victims who weren’t allowed to tell their sides of the story – Eric Garner in New York, John Crawford III, Tanisha Anderson and Tamir Rice in Ohio, Michael Brown, Jr. in Missouri, and Walter Scott in South Carolina.  All of these Black victims were unarmed during their fatal shootings.  Jason Black was armed, with a sling blade knife.  Consequently, it would come down to who the sitting jury determined was within his legal right to stand his ground. 

Thelma knew Jason’s case would be a heavy lift for the Marshall Law Group, but win or lose, it was also one that could best inform the American public about the improprieties within the criminal justice system.  In most, if not all, of the cases, all of the defendants were protected by qualified immunity, which protects law enforcement officers, as well as other government employees, from being sued for violating a person’s constitutional rights, unless those rights were “clearly established.  The Tamir Rice case was the lone exception, as the acquitted murderer was a security guard like Baker.  But because Jason was still alive to testify against him, the sitting jury’s racism and prejudice would be on full display, especially if its racial/ethnic makeup did not reflect Knox County’s racial/ethnic makeup. Thelma swallowed hard as she folded and placed the newspaper on her desk.