Black History Month: Social Justice in Central Brooklyn

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This Black History Month, we interviewed social justice pioneers in Central Brooklyn to understand the impact that individuals and organizations had on the social and political landscape, which continue to shape our communities. Institutions that arose from the Civil Rights movement of the 60s were founded and remain strong through grassroots activism. Similar to Restoration, Medgar Evers College was catalyzed by grassroots activism for the benefit of African Americans to address long neglected local issues.

The Center for Law and Social Justice (CLSJ), part of Medgar Evers College, has been in the vanguard of the movement to train, advocate, and organize the African American community since its founding in the 1980s. It is also the only Center of its kind in the United States. Founding Executive Director Esmeralda Simmons sat down to discuss the history of the Center and its impact on fair district drawing, voting rights, and political power in Central Brooklyn.


What motivated the founding of the Center for Law and Social Justice?

E.S.: This Center was started by a group of radical attorneys, activist attorneys in the early 1980s. They decided that they would create a civil rights center that would be a permanent institution, not just an ad-hoc reaction every time somebody got shot or killed by the police or the vigilantes. All of us were tired of reacting, mobilizing after something had happened, so we decided that it would be good to have an institutional response, an institution that was devoted to eradicating such incidents and not just reacting to particular incidents.

At the time I was the Deputy Commissioner for Human Rights for the state of New York. I had worked with these attorneys before on a variety of issues. We all knew each other. I was much more public policy-oriented than they were. To make a long story short, the proposal was funded. I applied for the job and got the job. I built it up from the ground. It was meant both as a research and an advocacy center – I don’t believe in advocacy without research.


How has CLSJ been an advocate for voting rights & access in Central Brooklyn?

E.S.: The ‘80s saw a rise of Black electoral power in New York City. Brooklyn was the heart of that. I was the Co-Chair of a group then  – the Coalition for Community Empowerment, , founded by Al Vann and later led by Major Owens – Colvin was a member of that coalition as well. We strove to do legal representation for political candidates supported by our communities. These candidates were up against incumbent politicians who were mostly White. Sitting on top of wholesale Black districts. Some of them – such as Marty Markowitz -- were supported by their communities, but most were just holding on to power by using the election law. This had been going on since I was a child. So we trained and supported people who wanted to run for office.

We even had to bring a case against the Board of Election. We sued them for discrimination against Black voters. The polls did not open on time, there were not enough polling workers, the machines they gave us kept breaking down, the workers did not know how to conduct the elections without the machines, so they would make mistakes and a whole lot of votes would be thrown out. We were monitoring every election, so we knew exactly what was going on. We put together a data team and we documented the discriminatory actions.

So we brought an omnibus case against the Board of Elections and we won. That was humongous.

We have argued that people who are incarcerated should be able to vote. And I believe that if we continue to make that argument for as long as it takes, we are ultimately going to prevail.


Redistricting and gerrymandering has gained national attention with North Carolina’s maps being deemed unconstitutional by high courts. How has redistricting affected Brooklyn?

What’s the difference between North Carolina and New York? They had no public interest groups to guide the conversation. People were simply reacting to what the elected officials had done. What we do is that we draw up our own maps, and show these to the proper authorities. And if they don’t structure their maps similar to ours, we go to the courts. What is more, we prepare these maps in cooperation with Latino and Asian groups so they can’t pit one group against another. We call it the “unity map.”

We’re focusing now on the next Census. The 2020 Census will determine not only our representation but also our vital interests. It’s part of our work to litigate redistricting issues. The Center for Law and Social Justice has been the only legal group representing Black people’s redistricting issues in the court system.


Read the full interview HERE