Oklahoma Supreme Court Tom Colbert challenged Tulsa lawyers to ‘‘put a smile on the faces of children.’’
He also challenged the entire profession to step up to the plate and do more to help those who cannot afford legal services to make lives become part of the American dream.
Colbert, keynote speaker at the Tulsa County Bar Association annual meeting, spoke from experience.
He is the first African American appointed to the Oklahoma Court of Appeals in 1999 and to the Supreme Court in 2004.
Colbert’s grandfather, born in 1894, just 31 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln, and his uncle two years later, understood the importance of education, that it was the only way to break the chain of poverty.
‘‘My grandfather had to quit school after the sixth grade so his younger brother could go to college,’’ Colbert said. ‘‘It was a dream come true for my uncle to attend Tuskegee University and later become president of the NAACP in Creek County.’’
Everyone is part of history, Colbert continued, fast forwarding to the 21st Century and recalling when he spoke recently at a sixth grade school assembly in Tulsa.
‘‘When I looked out at the young audience there was something visibly wrong,’’ he said. ‘‘There were no smiles on these children’s faces. Their looks indicated they felt there was no hope for them in the future.’’
Yet, Colbert continued, these young people are expected to be the next generation of leaders.
Relating personally, Colbert recalled that while he was in high school one teacher said he (Colbert) didn’t have the ability to go to college and should instead attend a trade school.
That was offset by another teacher who encouraged Colbert to go to college and pursue his dream.
‘‘I stopped in Sapulpa to visit my mother enroute to this meeting,’’ he said. ‘‘As I left, I told her I was going to speak to at the Tulsa County Bar Association annual meeting. Mom smiled and replied that my grandfather and my uncle would indeed have been proud of me.’’
It is indeed an honor and a privilege to speak here, Colbert continued. It is a privilege to speak to my friends, colleagues and see so many familiar faces.
Being a lawyer is special.
‘‘It is saddest for me that my grandfather and uncle never saw me reach my position on the supreme court,’’ he said. ‘‘I never thought for one minute that I would have the honor and privilege of serving in this capacity.’’
Everyone is a witness to history, Colbert said. But they don’t realize it as it happens.
Carl Purcell, a journalist who wrote in a magazine article about the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s recalled walking next to Dr. Martin Luther King, Colbert said. During those turbulent times, he photographed the events.
Forty years later, Purcell toured the various places he and been as a young man and was visiting the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, looking at the life-size statues of various well-known participants.
‘‘Suddenly,’’ the journalist noted, ‘‘the hair stood out on the back of my neck.’’
Purcell realized that he was depicted by one of those statues, that someone had taken a picture of the white journalist photographer holding a 35 mm camera who had been so much a part of the events of the time.
‘‘As a journalist, Purcell made his impact on history,’’ Colbert continued.
Quoting President Abraham Lincoln, Colbert said ‘‘we cannot escape history. We will be remembered in spite of ourselves the paths which we took, the path of honor or dishonor.’’
‘‘As lawyers,’’ the Supreme Court Justice continued, ‘‘we bear that responsibility. We have an opportunity to make the world a better place to live and work. Each of us is in charge of history, for better or for worse.’’
Going back to the founding fathers, Colbert noted they wrote that the ‘‘most fundamental element in our democracy is the rule of law.’’
Throughout history, lawyers and judges have fulfilled that role of protecting democracy, he said.
Much needs to be done beyond the courthouse.
Today, in this country, one fifth of all American children go to bed hungry. But half of the African American children are from broken homes.
One African American person in three either is in prison, on parole or probation.
Jails are the fastest growing industry in urban America today, Colbert added.
While African Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, they make up 44 percent of the population in federal and state prisons, he said. One in seven will be murdered.
That cycle must be reversed and can only be reversed through education and community support, Colbert said.
Citing the movie ‘‘Rwanda,’’ Colbert noted the change that occurred after a three-month civil war that killed more than 700,000 people. The country’s population was around 7 million.
The dispute involved who was dominant, light skinned or dark skinned people.
There were 11 reconciliation villages established after the truce was established. Anyone could live there, regardless of background, whether they had dark skin or light skin.
All they had to do was agree to live, love, worship and care about people. These villages had running water, schools, places to shop.
As people would walk through the village, there was a greeting that translated meant ‘‘I see you,’’ he said. That greeting meant that while you may be strong and I may be weak, that your father might have killed your father, you are better looking that I or richer, I see you. We are equal.’’
Recalling his recent experience speaking to the young students, Colbert noted that as he stepped onto that state he said to himself, ‘‘I see you.’’
‘‘Get involved,’’ the justice continued, noting the success of the moot court team coached by several Tulsa lawyers. This team, made up of young people who were in the legal system, was successful in competition. These were young people who weren’t supposed to be competitive, who came from inside the system.
There is hope for young people. One 2005 Webster High School graduate was the first from her family to graduate from high school and now is a pre med student.
Support the public schools, the lawyers were urged. Help make history come true so people have better jobs, can be proud of themselves and respectful of each other.
‘‘I saw the pain and sadness in those young people that no child should have to endure,’’ he said. There was no hope, no motivation. They felt abandoned by their family, their community and even their school.