Alan Page ’67 grasped the power of the law at a young age. Decades later, the professional football Hall of Famer became a pioneering jurist as the first African American member of the Minnesota Supreme Court. To commemorate MLK Jr. Day 2021 on Monday, he joined Notre Dame Law School dean G. Marcus Cole, discussing the impact of the law on his life and his of hope for — and doubts about — our capacity to forge a more just future.
Page called on all Americans to set biases aside, to make the effort to treat each other as individuals and “not some great ‘they’ out there,” deepening our divisions. “That’s the only hope we have,” he said.
Selections from Page’s comments:
In 1954 — I was 8 years old — the United States Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education. I intuitively understood that the decision in Brown had tremendous impact. And from that I got a sense of the power of the law. That the power of the law could be used to make the world a fairer place. If you can end state-sponsored segregation, that showed the potential of using law to solve problems and make people’s lives better.
I’m a law school graduate. I’m also a law school dropout. I enrolled at William Mitchell College of Law back in 1968 at the start of my second year with the Vikings and trust me, it was not pretty. I lasted about three weeks. I was in over my head, I didn’t understand what was going on. Those first classes when the professors start you down the road of asking you questions that are designed to make you fail, and it didn’t take me too long. I bailed out.
But then, eight years later it was time to go back. This time dedicated to learning and understanding the law. And this time, at a point in my football career where I had probably been around a little too long and gotten stale and needed something to focus on and lift me up. Law school with the University of Minnesota gave me the opportunity to use my head for something other than a battering ram and a place to store my helmet. The second time around, I loved it. I loved the challenge, I loved the give and take, I loved the fear of going into the classroom and being called on. All the fears that law school students face, I loved every minute of it.
In stark relief, we see (George Floyd) dying at the hands of a police officer in a way that, from all outward appearances, leaves one to conclude that it shouldn’t have happened. And the realization that it’s done in our names. I mean, what took place was done in my name. And so, I think people are taking it a little more personally and maybe that will result in actual change, but I think the jury’s still out. When you think about Michael Brown and, just in the last five or six years, all the people who have died at the hands of law enforcement officers for apparently no good reason, it’s still not clear that this is going to bring us to fundamental change.
G. Marcus Cole, Law School dean: What do you think about the appropriateness of the phrase Black Lives Matter? Some people have even said, “Well, that’s such a racist phrase,” . . . what do you think about that debate?
My reaction to that is (that those people are saying), “Let’s have a discussion about the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ and let’s not do anything about the underlying causes that create and organization like Black Lives Matter.” That kind of thing drives me crazy. Drives me absolutely crazy. We would rather have a discussion about the name than about the underlying root causes and that’s why I say it’s not clear to me that things are actually going to change. Until we get at the root causes of these deaths, we’ll just keep having this same discussion. We’ll be here 20 years from now having the same discussion.
Let me just focus on the protests here (in Minneapolis) after George Floyd’s death. There were protests and then there were violent protests. And I would note that, by far, the vast majority of the people involved were not engaged in violence or destruction. And we tend not to distinguish between the two. There is no place for violence, destruction . . . We had a post office burn down. We had a police station burn down. That’s unacceptable. That is unacceptable, but there’s a distinction between that and the people who were marching in protest. And so, yes, what took place at the U.S. Capitol on (January 6), yes, that is, in kind, what took place that resulted in the burning of our post office, the police station, grocery stores, neighborhood stores, businesses. Those are one and the same and they both deserve the same treatment.
But that’s separate and distinct from those people who were legitimately out standing up in the face of what they believe to be unacceptable conduct by law enforcement officers. And as Americans, we have a tendency to look for the easy answer. “Well, there was violence here and there was violence over there.” Well, yes. But when you look at what took place at the Capitol, evidently there was a lot more going on than people just simply marching in protest. And I might add, marching in protest of a lie.
Our Constitution is grounded in racial bias. And we have this debate about originalism. Well, if we’re going to go back to the words of Jefferson and Lincoln and Madison to decide how we live today, those words were grounded in slavery. And how do we untether ourselves from that? And I think until we do untether ourselves from that, we continue down the same path.
When the problem is systemic, the system has to change. And when you think about it, we rely on the words of our Founding Fathers. Why can’t those of us here today be the founding fathers and mothers for tomorrow? This is about five minutes of thought so don’t look too unkindly at it, but what if we had an amendment that said every 50 years, we look at the words in the Constitution and give them their current meaning? That would break us from the past and actually gave us a Constitution that works in the present because, as far as I know, our Founding Fathers didn’t know anything about the internet. Didn’t know anything about airplane travel. Didn’t have any idea what weaponry might come along, what arms mean today and what arms meant back then. I think they would be astounded, yet we’re 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.
As a judge, you’re there to exercise your judgment, not impose your will. And because of that, you have to constantly question yourself. About your motivation for the decisions you’re making. You have to be intentional about it. You can’t just say, “Well, I’m not biased,” and move on. We’re all biased. We all have biases. And so, as individuals, we have to look internally and ask ourselves, “Are the decisions I’m making based on some stereotypical view of people who are other than me? Or is it based on some objective criteria based on who the person is?”
We’ve got to stop segregating ourselves. We segregate ourselves in our homes, in our schools, in our workplaces, in our communities. We’ve got to stop doing that. And only we can do that. It’s not some great “they” out there. It’s individuals like you and me and everybody else. We have to be intentional about setting our biases aside, intentional about how we treat other people, and intentional about making decisions without including our biases. I mean, that’s the only hope we have.
We have the power to change. 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?