Black Law Students Association Honors Judge U.W. Clemon ’68 at Annual Paul Robeson Gala

Della Britton Baeza '78, Head of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, Delivers Keynote Address
New York, March 19, 2015—Members of Columbia Law School’s Black Law Students Association(BLSA) joined faculty, friends, and alumni on Feb. 26 at the Columbia University Club of New York to celebrate the legacy of Paul Robeson ’23, a gifted lawyer, actor, and singer who became a civil rights advocate and global icon of human dignity. 
Paul Robeson '23, from his Law School class portrait.
BLSA presented the 2015 Distinguished Alumni Award to Judge U.W. Clemon ’68, an eminent civil rights attorney and Alabama’s first black federal judge, while Della Britton Baeza ’78, head of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, delivered the keynote address. Gillian Lester, Dean and the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law, also addressed the gathering.

“My Mississippi ancestors would say I’m in high cotton here!” said Clemon, after an introduction from Robeson Gala Co-Chair Lauren McGlockton ’16. “This is one of the most meaningful recognitions I have received. The influence of Paul Robeson has been so profound in my life that sitting over my desk is a portrait of him.”

Clemon recalled choosing Columbia Law School—the only law school he applied to—because of the work of alumni like Constance Baker Motley ’46 and Jack Greenberg ’48 in civil rights advocacy, including at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF).
Judge U.W. Clemon '68 accepted BLSA's 2015 Distinguished Alumni Award.
“But would Columbia choose me, a graduate of an unaccredited black school in some broken down building in Alabama?” he asked. “Well, thank God for affirmative action!”

Clemon recalled the culture shock of first moving to New York City and the wise mentorship of Professor Walter Gellhorn ’31, a longtime faculty member and pioneer in administrative law with a long history advising LDF. Gellhorn not only introduced Clemon to Greenberg, then serving as LDF’s director-counsel, but helped him land a part-time job with the organization. LDF later provided a stipend that helped Clemon establish his civil rights practice in Alabama.

In 1969, Clemon sued Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant to desegregate the University of Alabama football team. After serving in the Alabama State Senate, he was nominated to the federal bench in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter, and confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate. In nearly three decades on the federal bench, including seven years as chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, Clemon presided over hundreds of significant federal cases—including Lilly Ledbetter v. Goodyear, in which a jury determined after an influential ruling by Clemon that Ledbetter had been treated unfairly on account of her sex. The case was reversed on appeal, but Congress later passed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Clemon retired from the bench in 2009 and continues to practice law.
Della Britton Baeza '78, head of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, delivered the gala's keynote address.
Della Britton Baeza ’78, president and chief executive officer of the Jackie Robinson Foundation (JRF), delivered the evening’s keynote address after an introduction from BLSA member Kayasha Lyons ’17, a recipient of a JRF scholarship.

“There’s a lot of pride in this room tonight,” Baeza said, noting the diverse accomplishments of BLSA alumni and recalling her time as a student alongside future Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. ’76.

Looking back at her own career, Baeza offered some advice to black law students.

“Study really hard and work really hard to get hired at the very highest echelons,” she said. “Seek to excel. Don’t take shortcuts—your competition won’t—but always remember where you came from.”

BLSA leaders, including President Aurra Fellows ’16, Vice President Matthew Mahoney ’16, and Robeson Gala Co-Chair Deangeor Chin ’16, talked about the organization’s memorable year, which included winning six out of six possible awards in the Northeast Region Frederick Douglass Moot Court Competition, as well as the events and aftermath of last fall’s grand jury non-indictments in the Ferguson and Staten Island cases.
President Aurra Fellows '16, right, and Vice President Matthew B. Mahoney '16
were among the BLSA leaders who spoke.

Dean Lester said today’s BLSA students will continue to uphold Robeson’s powerful legacy.

“The world needs your talent and your commitment,” she said. “I look forward to the day when I see your names honored for your own pioneering civil rights achievements. Paul Robeson would be proud.”

Previous alumni honorees at the Paul Robeson Gala include Holder, former New Jersey Attorney General Peter C. Harvey ’82, and New York City Counsel to the Mayor Maya Wiley ’89. Keynote speakers have included former New York City mayor David N. Dinkins and Kristen Clarke ’00, chief of the Civil Rights Bureau at the New York Attorney General’s Office.
Attendees enjoyed an evening of camaraderie and fellowship.

View a slideshow with more photos from the 2015 Paul Robeson Gala.