The good intentions behind Howard University’s much-criticized affirmative action policy aren’t the only legacy the school has to hold up. Howard long ago earned an important place in the brain drain of black leaders that has at times hampered black achievement in higher education.
When the great Ralph Nader paid Howard a visit as a law student, he led a protest of student gangs and received a lesson he still remembers.
“I was there as a future lawyer, and I saw men like James Cone and Wade Henderson get beaten up by gangs,” he said in an interview. “You hear that story and it’s very devastating.”
Nader said this story inspired him to fight for a cleaner, more effective justice system. It also brought him down to earth about the insular world of academia, and the importance of interracial interaction in changing society.
In 1965, after completing Howard’s law program, Nader did everything but march with other Howard students to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. They set out from the University of Baltimore on foot — with no funds and without advance notice — and returned to Baltimore to talk to legislators about their vision for an alternative legal system.
“I was not trying to create civil disobedience,” he said. “I wanted our senators and representative to have an idea of what racism was really like.”
African Americans at Howard and the nation are not immune to such dangers. In the fall of last year, two black students at Howard, Tionna Boyd and Stojan Ristic, became the most recent casualties of a criminal justice system that regularly targets black Americans. The American Civil Liberties Union described their abduction from a bus stop as a “lone-wolf attack.”
Although some critics say the statistics on the nation’s prison population are deceiving, holding up Howard University as a model of racial justice cannot be taken lightly.
While improving the vast range of educational options for underprivileged students in the U.S. is a laudable cause, for many students it comes at the cost of a real payback in the same body politic in which they hope to earn a college degree.
Howard has a small share of this — students from Howard graduate at slightly lower rates than they did in 2005. Last year, 27 percent of college graduates were black, down from 34 percent in 2005.
While Nader called Howard an institution of higher learning that “jokes all the time about its race,” it is not the only school he came across with non-black administrators at the time. “There was no black faculty at any of the other programs I went to,” he said. “And the performance in many cases was equally bad.”
Yet Nader did not fit neatly into other stereotypes of liberal spending and privilege. One of his few belongings at the time was an issue of the New York Times and a subscription to Newsweek.
“I was very influenced by a lot of the idealism I saw on campus,” he said.
In 1969, he traveled with his family to Africa, where he learned to blend in with the natives. When he returned home, Nader took a position at trial lawyer Gloria Allred’s firm, where he worked for five years, looking at how the criminal justice system treated black defendants.
His best-known clients were a white teenager who was arrested on suspicion of rape and a 14-year-old boy accused of murdering a 75-year-old black woman. Both served only a few years before they were freed by a California appellate court.
“I didn’t know exactly what it meant to be a black criminal defendant in America in the 1960s, but, of course, I didn’t see or experience the result the others did,” Nader said.
Today, as his books on those cases hit the shelves in bookstores across the country, he is also struggling to remain politically engaged. He is divorced and his family is in Florida.
In the decades between the civil rights movement and the 1980s, he became estranged from the political world he helped shape. During the primary season, he watched candidates spar over issues that matter to him.
“I got mad,” he said. “It was like I was back in a time warp.”
From Southerners showing he has a strong record of supporting blacks, to activists he met as a student on an airplane, there is no question that Nader has spent a lot of time on the journey to political power and he is not alone.