By Taylor Markey
“There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America,” former President Bill Clinton said during his 1993 inaugural address.
Thurgood Marshall Jr. referenced this quote as he spoke on the importance of respect when communicating with others during an event April 10 at 7 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom of the Adele H. Stamp Student Union.
The Norman and Florence Brody Family Foundation Public Policy Forum hosted the event, titled “Leadership and Civic Engagement: An Antidote for Divisive and Tribalistic Times?” The School of Public Policy dean, Dr. Robert Orr, moderated the discussion.
“I will admit right upfront that when I invited our distinguished guest tonight to come to give a speech, [Marshall] thought about it for a moment and I thought, ‘Hmmm, maybe he’s gonna decline,’ and he said, ‘On one condition, that it’s a conversation, not a speech,’” Orr said.
This university’s president, Wallace Loh, was invited to “set the stage” for the event. He started off by telling the story of how he immigrated to this country at the age of 15 in the mid-’60s.
“When I came here, America was a microcosm of Europe,” Loh said. “Today, America is becoming a microcosm of the world — the universal nation, a nation of nations. And then what happens? What happens, is there appears to be a counterrevolution. We are today about as divided and polarized as any time that I can remember.”
Loh said, “We are truly retreating into tribes,” which means one no longer speaks as an individual. He also brought up the meaning of being an American.
“I believe that being an American — and I myself am a proud naturalized American — is not a spectator sport,” he said. “Being an American is to be actively engaged in the life of the community, making a difference, helping others … In order to go out and do good and make a difference, one must also be good — be a good American citizen.”
Orr kicked off the discussion by asking for advice for those who “want to move our debate in civil ways.” He asked if there are any secrets to coalition building and bridge building.
Marshall said he has worked for three senators who were “bridge builders” who tried to pull opposites together — Sens. Albert Gore Jr., Ernest F. Hollings and Edward “Ted” Kennedy.
“So, it’s a range of folks on the spectrum, but they all understood that in order to get things done in the Senate, they had to be engaging and respectful of each of their 99 colleagues,” Marshall said. “They had to be active listeners … I think part of that requires an element of courage because you’ve got to be prepared … to share those same things about yourself. To be able to reveal what motivates you, what you need to thrive in the job.”
Marshall brought up that the notion that everybody is innocent until proven guilty should not be limited to the criminal court system or legal system. It should be used in every interaction with another human.
Marshall is currently a partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, a global law firm. He counsels clients who are engaged in public policy.
Orr asked Marshall about the role of law today and if he would encourage students to choose the legal profession. Orr led into the question by bringing up how Marshall’s father, Thurgood Marshall Sr., sued this university so all students could have access to it.
“For the record, we thank your father for suing us,” Orr said.
Marshall said he is a “true believer in the law school process and the practice of law as a tool for all sorts of things, including social justice.”
During the Q&A section of the event, Marshall spoke on having to call out discrimination, but acknowledged that there are times when it is difficult for people to do so.
“I believe you should not put yourself at risk,” Marshall said. “There are too many tragic outcomes that have come from that. For all the heroic stories that I know I greatly respect, it breaks my heart to think of the times when people who have done that and paid a price that is just absolutely uncalled for.”
At the end of the event, Orr said to Marshall, “As you are a proud grad of the University of Virginia, I want to make you an honorary Terp here tonight.”
Matthew Rogers, a senior government and politics major, said civic engagement is something he aspires to be better able to work with and wanted to hear insight.
“I think it’s important to have events like these because everybody on this campus has different objectives, different focuses and studies,” Rogers said. “But when we can come together and meet and put aside time just to think about big questions that might not otherwise be addressed, and in the company of each other’s perspectives where we can grow or form a better understanding.”
Featured Photo Credit: Thurgood Marshall Jr. and Dr. Robert Orr discuss the importance of conversation and understanding April 10 in the Grand Ballroom of Stamp. (Taylor Markey/Bloc Reporter)
Taylor Markey is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at email@example.com.