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November 5, 2019

The Case to Step Away from Law (And Maybe Law School)

A law student reflects on her visit to Mamie Till’s home.

When I was applying to law school, I had three people in mind. First, my uncle—the epitome of a public servant—who, even amid the deepest throngs of the Egyptian Revolution, woke up every morning to meet his clients experiencing employment discrimination. Second, Malcolm X. In his autobiography, Malcolm stated, “My greatest lack has been, I believe, that I don’t have the kind of academic education I wish I had been able to get—to have been a lawyer, perhaps.” Malcolm X, a civil rights activist in the Black Power movement, was my biggest role model growing up; I saw fulfilling his dream as a way of continuing his legacy. And third, Mamie Till. Mamie was the mother of Emmett Till, a young boy who was brutally murdered at the age of 14 after being accused of flirting with a white woman in Mississippi (who confessed that she was lying). After his corpse, dismembered and beaten, was brought back to Chicago, Mamie insisted on an open-casket funeral to “let the people see what they did to my boy.” By sharing her story with the country, Mamie galvanized thousands of civil rights activists from across the country and world. 50,000 people were estimated to have visited her house at 6427 South St. Lawrence Avenue—50,000 people came here to the South Side. Moreover, after the open-casket funeral, Mamie dedicated the rest of her life to revealing to the world what happened to her son. 

Though Mamie’s lifetime preceded mine, she still had a profound impact on my life. To be a single, powerful Black woman who ignited an entire movement was historic. Her pursuit for justice was unwavering; she committed her life to racial equality and civil rights through the very last year of her life, doing everything from speaking all around the country to teaching in Chicago public schools. She inspired me to use my education to serve communities who have been robbed of their humanity. When I found out I was going to UChicago Law, I knew I had to visit her house in Woodlawn. 

Despite my conviction, it took me over two years to make the trek to Mamie’s house. It wasn’t the distance that held me back—the mere 1.1 miles can hardly be considered an inconvenient walk from campus. Rather, I didn’t want to be just another visitor who expected the homeowners to curate their house as if it were an exhibit. Turns out, my fears were wrong: I was the first visitor in three years. Upon arriving, a few things stood out to me about the house. For one, the home is impressive in its austere simplicity. Two stories high, the deep-red brick home represents what I believe to be the stoicism of Mamie. The home was planked by an empty verdant lot to the left and another two-story brick home to the right. Greeting me were the current tenants of the house, a couple whose origins were not too far from my own in Mississippi. The current tenant’s mother is a cousin of the late Emmett Till, though he thinks the owners did not realize the connection when he signed the lease. I asked him how it feels living here. Locking his eyes on the porch, he said, “No one cares about this neighborhood. If they don’t want to put a sign saying who lived here, do you think they will care about the house?”  

When I visited Mamie’s house for the first time, I wanted to experience it with the belief that I was doing good by her. I wanted to feel like I, too, was unwavering in my fight for justice, that I made her proud. But as I left 6427 South St. Lawrence Avenue, I couldn’t help but face the reality: Although I am working diligently towards my law degree, I am not learning how to rectify or prevent injustices. 

So far, my studies have disabused me of the notion that the legal system is noble. Today, like 65 years ago, the legal system is a barometer of social privilege, providing the most utility to the elites. The legal system is precedential, conforming to principles established by actors who never agreed to further Mamie’s fights. The legal system is also political by nature, handing the judicial scales to presidential appointees who promise to uphold the opinions of the political bourgeoisie. Finally, the legal system is discretionary, allowing police, prosecutors, and judges to subject a disproportionate number of people of color to the mass incarceration system without needing to provide any justification for their decisions. 

The legal system is a lot of things—but it’s not noble. The people using it, the ones who are manipulating it to radically change the status quo, are noble, but the system is not. 

I urge students, law and non-law, to realize this difference. Like Mamie’s unrecognized home, we hide this country’s blemishes and blunders, contouring, partitioning, and realigning them to thwart the responsibility for our mistakes. But as students, we can step outside the realms of conformity and recognize our faults. We cannot absolve ourselves of the responsibility of confronting the past. We have to see what’s unseen—what’s intentionally left out of history and discussions.   

So, yes, Chicago needs to recognize this house—establishing it as a state landmark would be a first step. But then, we also need to reckon with how almost 65 years later, little has changed in the environment around 6427 South St. Lawrence Avenue. 65 years later, we still need to “let the people see what they did.” 

Leena El-Sadek is a student in the University of Chicago Law School. 

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