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Former Minnesota Supreme Court justice discusses race in America in honor of MLK Day

| Tuesday, January 19, 2021

A picture of smiling students from Justice Page Middle School in Minneapolis was Alan Page’s Zoom backdrop of choice during the University’s sixth annual campus-wide observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Page, a 1967 Notre Dame graduate and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2018, established the Page Education Foundation in 1988 to encourage students in their academic pursuits. From an early age, Page’s parents had instilled in him the conviction that education constituted a crucial tool in overcoming racial inequality.

Growing up as Brown v. Board was decided in 1954, Page also intuitively understood the power the law had to make the world a fairer place. He would go on to become the first African American to serve on Minnesota’s Supreme Court almost 40 years later.

Adriana Perez | The Observer
Alan Page 67 (right), former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice, shared his thoughts on race in America with G. Marcus Cole (left), dean of the Notre Dame Law School.

These beliefs on the importance of law and education to advance racial justice were clear throughout the virtual conversation hosted by Notre Dame in order to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday.

The event was held virtually due to the pandemic and the consequent changes to the academic calendar. G. Marcus Cole, dean of the Notre Dame Law School, served as moderator of the discussion, which was streamed to over 1,400 live viewers.

“As we remember the work and legacy of Dr. King and honor the past, let us pray for a future that will live up to Dr. K’s dreams. Let us pray not only with our words but also with our actions,” senior Kaya Lawrence, director of diversity and inclusion for Student Government, said in the opening prayer. “Let us pray not only with what we dream and hope but with our feet on the ground actively walking the walk.”

Page admitted that King’s impact on the United States scared him when he was younger.

“What he was doing was nothing less than changing the future for all of us. It took a lot of courage, and, quite frankly, watching what he was doing instilled fear in me,” he said. “Because it was scary for a young kid to see people willing to put their lives on the line to provide me a better opportunity and a better life.”

Page grew up in Canton, Ohio, during the 1950s, watching fictional criminal defense lawyer Perry Mason on television and dreaming of doing more than working at the steel mills as many other young Black kids did.

From his vantage point, he said, steel mills offered dirty, dangerous and dreary work. But from what he’d heard, lawyers had big, fancy cars and made money without much effort. And, he admitted, that also made him want to become a lawyer.

Notre Dame and law school

Page arrived at Notre Dame shortly after the March on Washington, at the height of the civil rights movement and during the Vietnam War: football, prestige and community all ultimately attracted him to a campus he said was home to no more than 30 students of color.

A former football player, Page was inducted into both the NFL and College Football Halls of Fame for leading the Irish in the 1966 National Championship and for his role as a defensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings and the Chicago Bears.

Though he dropped out after his first three weeks in the William Mitchell College of Law — now the Mitchell Hamline School of Law — he eventually received his law degree from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1978 while playing professional football.

He became special assistant attorney general of Minnesota in 1985 and then assistant attorney general, after which he was elected to the state’s Supreme Court in 1992 and re-elected three times, serving until his retirement in 2015.

“How did law school and the practice of law change the way you viewed the racial divide in this country?” Cole asked Page.

But the former Minnesota Supreme Court justice seemed unsure that the law changed his perspective. If anything, learning more about the law convinced him of what he had intuitively understood since he was a kid, as he explained: “I think it reinforced my view that law could be a useful tool in bridging some of the racial divide.”

A look into the Black Lives Matter protests

Cole also asked Page about his thoughts on what has remained the same and what has changed regarding race in America. There was a different reaction, he pointed out, to the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020, as opposed to the “hundreds of other innocent people who had been killed by the police beforehand.”

“Well, I think the jury is still out on that,” Page said. “I’m not convinced that anything five years from now will be different because of it. I hope that it will.”

However, he said, Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers, “from all outward appearances, leads one to conclude that it shouldn’t have happened,” and there was “a realization that it [was] done in our names.”

After Michael Brown’s police shooting in 2014, Page noted, many people have died at the hands of law enforcement. Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, was one of the events that sparked Black Lives Matter (BLM) — a racial justice movement that was revitalized last summer after Floyd’s killing, which followed that of Elijah McClain in Aurora, Colorado, of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick, Georgia, and of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.

Cole asked Page about the movement’s defining phrase, “Black Lives Matter,” and about the counter offered by those who, claiming that “All Lives Matter,” say the BLM movement should not have the name it does.

“We would rather have a discussion about the name than about the underlying root causes, and that’s sort of why I say it’s not clear to me that things are actually going to change,” Page said. 

That same discussion about the words, and not about the reasons why an organization like Black Lives Matter needs to exist, he said, will keep the U.S. in the same cycle even 20 years from now.

Reflections on recent unrest

Maintaining the course of the conversation, Cole asked Page about the different treatment law enforcement showed BLM protesters as opposed to the treatment of the anti-lockdown armed protesters at the Michigan State Capitol in 2020 and the pro-Trump mob at the United States Capitol on Jan. 6.

After George Floyd’s death, Page said, “There were protests, and then there were violent protests. I would note that, by far, the vast majority of people involved were not engaged in violence or destruction, and we don’t tend to distinguish between two.”

But he condemned both the violence on display a few weeks ago in Washington, D.C. and that which burned down post offices last summer in Minnesota.

“Those are one and the same, and they both deserve the same treatment,” he said. “But that’s separate and distinct from those people who are … legitimately standing up in the face of what they believe to be unacceptable conduct by law enforcement officers.”

At the Capitol, Page said, there was more going on than people marching in protest — “and I might add, marching in protest of a lie.”

As a judge, he explained, he has had experience with facts, some of which one might like or not like. One can have a debate, he said, about the inferences that can be drawn from facts, but not about facts that have been established.

“Maybe the only thing that holds this democracy together is the trust and confidence that people place in it,” Page added. “If we keep eroding that trust and confidence, then we will have nothing.”

The pandemic and communities of color

Cole also asked Page about the effects of a pandemic, which the U.S. has failed to control, on communities of color.

“The virus doesn’t care who you are, where you are, the color of your skin, how much money you make,” Page said, adding that it does take advantage of and consequently devastate Black and Indigenous communities.

Poverty, he explained, doesn’t give people a choice: they have to go outside because they have to work. But other people who do have a choice, he pointed out, voluntarily expose themselves to the virus, “which, quite frankly, I do not understand.”

“So, I think what we’re seeing is just where poverty is, where need is, where people don’t have choices,” he said.

A discussion on constitutional originalism

Page also talked about the Constitution, which he said is grounded in racial bias and slavery and from which Americans need to untether themselves.

“Are you suggesting we need to start from a clean slate or can this society be fixed?” Cole asked.

The problem is systemic, Page pointed out, so that means the system has to change. He proposed an amendment to revise the meaning of the words of the Constitution every 50 years, so that the document more clearly responded to the present.

“Why can’t we, those of us here today, be the Founding Fathers and Mothers for tomorrow?” Page asked.

The Founding Fathers, he said, did not know about the internet, airplane travel or modern weaponry, “… yet we are ordering our lives based on a document from a time when the people who created that document could not have had any idea what we might be facing.”

“We have the power to change,” Page said in closing. “I do, you do, all the people listening and watching here today have the power to change the future. The question is: Do we have the will to act?”

More on Walk the Walk Week

A video of the conversation with Page is available on the University’s YouTube channel.

“Today’s conversation is just one small part of our ongoing dialogue about the larger issues of racial and social justice in this time in our history,” University President Fr. John Jenkins said at the end of the event.

The annual Walk the Walk Week will be observed on campus from Feb. 22 through Feb. 28 after the return to in-person classes. Per the Diversity and Inclusion website, during Walk the Walk Week, the University sets up a series of events so the community can consider their individual and collective roles in making Notre Dame and the United States more welcoming and inclusive.

According to the University, information about events being planned as part of Walk the Walk Week can be found in said website as well, where events will continue to be added up until Feb. 22.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story stated Michael Brown’s shooting occurred in 2016 rather than 2014. The Observer regrets this error.

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About Adriana Perez

Adriana is a Notre Dame junior from Guayaquil, Ecuador, majoring in political science and minoring in the Gallivan Program of Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She is currently serving as Editor-in-Chief of The Observer for the 2021-2022 term. You can find her at @adrianamperezr on Twitter.

Contact Adriana