New York, April 7, 2014—Columbia Law School’s Black Law Students Association (BLSA) continues to uphold the spirit and conscience of Paul Robeson ’23, said Maya Wiley ’89, the new counsel to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, at the organization’s 20th annual Paul Robeson gala March 27 in Columbia University’s iconic Low Library.
Paul Robeson '23 from his Law School class portrait.
Every year, generations of BLSA alumni gather with students and colleagues to celebrate the life and legacy of renowned lawyer, entertainer, and civil rights advocate Paul Robeson, one of Columbia Law School’s most distinguished alumni. Wiley, founder and longtime head of the Center for Social Inclusion—before joining NYC government—accepted this year’s Distinguished Alumni Award for her tireless efforts as an attorney and policy advocate working to address structural racial inequities in the United States and South Africa.
Maya Wiley '89, recipient of BLSA's Distinguished Alumni Award, addresses the audience.
“This is one of the most important honors I’ll ever receive in my career, from the law school I came to because of Jack Greenberg ’48,” Wiley said, in a nod to the renowned Columbia law professor and graduate, still on faculty, who was part of the legal team who argued Brown V. Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court. “The most important service lawyers provide is not the technical practice of law, but what it means to structure a society for all of its members. That’s all I ever wanted to do as a lawyer.”
Wiley shared Robeson’s stirring epitaph with the audience.
“There’s a quote I love from Paul Robeson: ‘The artist’—I would say the lawyer—‘must elect to fight for freedom or slavery,’” she read. “‘I have made my choice. I had no alternative.’”
Kristen Clarke '00, a previous awardee, delivers the keynote address.
Kristen Clarke ’00, Chief of the Civil Rights Bureau at the NY Attorney General’s Office and the 2010 recipient of the BLSA Distinguished Alumni Award, delivered the evening’s keynote address.
“The Civil Rights Office of New York State is totally committed to the battle for an even playing field and equal opportunity for all across the state,” Clarke said. “Our office is proud to be on the front lines of struggles for fairness and justice, working to combat discrimination wherever it rears its ugly head.”
BLSA leadership, including President Jeffrey Skinner ’15, Treasurer Christina Obiajulu ’15, Gala Chair Erica Senat ’15, and Vice Gala Chair Tochi Onyebuchi ’15, talked about the organization’s highly successful year, which included a strong showing in the Frederick Douglass Moot Court Competition and organizing this year’s Paul Robeson Conference March 29th, which explored the creation of transformative policy. BLSA also sponsored various events on campus and assisted students and alumni with networking and professional development.
Jeffrey Skinner '15 and Erica Senat '15 were among the BLSA leaders who spoke.
Dean David M. Schizer, the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law and Harvey R. Miller Professor of Law and Economics, summed up the significance of BLSA.
“BLSA plays an extraordinarily important role at Columbia Law School,” Schizer said. “The association provides a sense of community that is palpable in this room, and the spirit of justice which permeates the organization means the world to me personally and to the school.”
Previous alumni honorees at the Paul Robeson Gala include Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. ’76, former New Jersey Attorney General Peter C. Harvey ’82, and filmmaker Michele Stephenson ’95. Keynote speakers have included former New York City mayor David N. Dinkins and scholar Derrick Bell.
Attendees enjoyed an evening of fellowship and camaraderie.
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