NORMAL — Marking the NAACP's centennial, the Bloomington-Normal chapter hosted a showing of the film "Marshall" at the Normal Theater and led a discussion of the state of race relations in the Twin Cities.
“The first time I saw it, I left with my heart racing and it’s racing now because it just brings up so many feelings considering what I do,” said Carla Barnes, McLean County’s chief public defender for last four years, during a panel discussion after the film Thursday night.
Before he was the Supreme Court's first African-American justice, Thurgood Marshall worked as legal counsel for the NAACP, stopping in cities and small towns across the country to stand up for black defendants in the face of racial injustice.
Marshall led the legal team in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 school desegregation case, but the film centered on a less well-known case out of Connecticut wherein a black man was accused by a white woman of rape and attempted murder.
Even those who knew the history and had already seen the movie were caught up in Marshall’s story, and the audience of about 100 people filled the theater with applause when the credits rolled.
Panel member Charles Morris, who has worked with the NAACP in Normal since the 1960s, said he enjoyed the film, “though it’s difficult for me to watch movies like this because it’s a very good description of the life that I’ve lived.”
Barnes praised the film's insights into the legal process.
“The jury selection is the most important process in the jury trial because you want good people,” she said. “You want people that are going to listen to the evidence, and it matters if it’s a traffic case, if it’s a murder case or anything in between because people want to be heard.
"And as (Marshall) said in the movie, jurors can deliver justice, and ultimately that’s what we all want.”
When moderator Michael Herzog, a local defense attorney and NAACP member, asked if the issues regarding race relations had been solved, Morris answered simply: "Of course not."
A student from Parkside Junior High School in Normal agreed with him, later telling a story of her classmates using racial slurs.
“We had to sit down with teachers and basically tell them what the N-word means and how it should not be used,” Adriana Bertrand said. “They don’t understand what the word means or how it can hurt somebody.”
Bertand said she thinks more minority inclusion in textbooks is one way to make progress, “so we can all be educated about everybody else’s history.”
Tom Cullen of the Central Illinois chapter of the ACLU also emphasized the role of education in understanding biases and the systemic structures of racial disparity.
“A big part of every aspect of the criminal justice system relies on discretion — discretion from police officers, discretion from prosecutors, public defenders, judges, all through the system,” he said. “I think the number one thing that could be done is more and more education because we need the discretion in the criminal justice system, but we need individuals to be educated about their own biases about systemic structures that are holding people down so when they have the opportunity to use that discretion it’s a wise and informed choice."
Panelist Sharon Ware is State Farm’s lead counsel and works with Prairie State Legal Services to expunge criminal records to help people in such areas ad housing and employment.
“We need more volunteers who are willing to even come out and help fill out applications or to assist people with housing — numerous different projects where we can give back to the community,” Ware said.
“Just think about it, Thurgood Marshall was one person. He was one person," she said. "He was counsel for the NAACP, but he did a lot as one person and you can also.”