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Text of MSBA President Tom Nelson's (2019-20) Remarks about the Bar Year Gone By

President's Report (excerpt)
Tom Nelson, President 2019-2020
MSBA Assembly Meeting
June 22, 2020

This has been a memorable year, to say the least. We have been threatened and sometimes infected by a coronavirus that has upended our lives. And we have been touched by tragedy and trauma, arising out of another form of virus—racism. In some ways, we are being brought together by all of this, in virtual and vital ways. At least I hope so—awakening us toward justice, transformation, and hope.

Along the way, we were called upon to honor, remember, acknowledge, and learn from the 1920 lynchings in Duluth of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie. They were killed in their youth, and they were killed because they were Black. Their murders were lawless and vicious. The coronavirus required us to postpone the commemoration we had planned to mark the 100th year commemoration of those murders. But we will gather when we can, in our continuing effort and promise to learn forward, together.

We were also called upon and honored this year to right the wrong of the conviction of Mr. Max Mason, a conviction that arose out of the same days, and the same racism, of those 1920 lynchings. He was convicted of a crime he did not commit; a crime that did not happen. He was convicted because he was Black. He was the victim of a twisted and perverted version of the rule of law—a reminder that the rule of law can be, if we are not careful, hijacked and used as a tool for evil. The soul of the real rule of law calls for equal justice under the rule of law, for all.

Just a few days ago the Minnesota Board of Pardons granted our state's first posthumous pardon to Mr. Mason—belatedly, of course, but meaningfully. It was a unanimous decision by Governor Walz, Attorney General Ellison, and Chief Justice Gildea.

That pardon was the right thing to do. It helped to right a terrible wrong. But there is still more that we can do. For example, just as our U.S. Supreme Court has struggled to find the moment to officially overrule its Korematsu decision (a decision rooted in a racism that allowed the forced internment of Japanese people into "camps" during World War II), perhaps the Max Mason pardon now provides the moment for our Minnesota Supreme Court to overrule, reverse, or vacate its own unfortunate affirmance of Mr. Mason's conviction. Sua Sponte, if the procedural hook is otherwise missing.

And now we have no choice but to acknowledge and learn from the killing of George Floyd—a killing that is connected by a direct line to the killings of Mr. Clayton, Mr. Jackson and Mr. McGhie—and to the arrest, conviction, affirmance, and banishment of Mr. Mason. Our bar associations, along with a multitude of individuals, organizations and companies, have rightly condemned the murder of Mr. Floyd in no uncertain terms. But it is our duty not only to say, but to do. Well-written statements or quickly-convened conferences must not be "one-and-done" moments. They are fine, and important; but they are not enough—even as we say out loud and at long last: "Enough!"

So, believing that small but do-able ideas can sometimes lead to significant steps, here is one modest proposal.

Perhaps the MSBA, along with its several allies, could help, start, fund, develop and support a law-related scholarship at each of our law schools in George Floyd's name: to be awarded each year in the years to come. There is at least one such initiative already in the works. One small way to "say his name," as goes the heartbreaking chant.

It would be more than fitting, especially in light of what we have learned from George Floyd's second grade teacher in Houston, Texas—Ms. Sexton. She remembers George Floyd from when he was one of her 8-year-old second graders—a little child, as we all once were. She remembers the Black History Month assignment that she gave to her students: "How will you impact the future? What will you do to make a difference?"

Now, listen to this. George Floyd drew a drawing—which, luckily and lovingly, Ms. Sexton kept (as teachers do). He drew himself as a grown man, wearing a black robe. Next to the drawing, 8-year-old George Floyd wrote: "When I grow up, I want to be a Supreme Court judge."

Maybe, just maybe, one day, many days from now, with the right support, a worthy recipient of a George Floyd scholarship will be sworn in as one of our Supreme Court justices. He or she will no doubt pause during the investiture to remember, and to honor, and to say his name: George Floyd.

That is one thing we could do. Let's think of even more that we can do. Sooner, instead of later.