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The Lawyers’ Committee’s Role in the Longstanding Fight for Racial Justice in Waller County

August 10, 2015

Chief Counsel and Senior Deputy Director

Race is back in the spotlight in Waller County, Texas.  Waller County, home to Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU), a historically black institution surrounded by a largely white population, is also the home of voting rights and criminal justice violations, and most recently, the tragic jailhouse death of Sandra Bland on July 13.  Ms. Bland, a PVAMU alum, interviewed for a job at her alma mater the day before a police officer stopped her just outside the school’s entrance for allegedly not signaling a turn.  That stop escalated into an arrest, detention, and, three days later, Ms. Bland’s death.

A New York Times article, Texas County’s Racial Past Is Seen as Prelude to Sandra Bland’s Death, explores some of Waller County’s complicated racial history.  The Times article discusses the Lawyers’ Committee’s work in Waller County in the early 2000s, an illustration of how racial discrimination in the county is intertwined with discrimination in voting.  The Lawyers’ Committee played a central role in the fight for voting rights spearheaded by courageous PVAMU students in the early 2000s.  In late 2003, the local Criminal District Attorney, Oliver Kitzman, sent an open letter to the county elections administrator.  Kitzman’s letter, which was reprinted in the local newspaper, threatened students with felony prosecution and a fine if they voted.  According to him, many of them were not Waller County residents because they grew up outside of the county.

As this assault on voting rights was developing, I was settling in at the Lawyers’ Committee to direct its Voting Rights Project.  My colleague, Jonah Goldman, and I headed to Texas to meet with the PVAMU students.  The student NAACP Chapter unanimously voted to sue Mr. Kitzman, and four brave students, Neothies Lindley, Jr., K. Thomas Queenan, Vivian Spikes, and Brian Rowland, also agreed to serve as plaintiffs.  We and our co-counsel at Weil Gotschal & Manges LLP—John Strasburger, now federal judge Gregg Costa, and Chris Lopez—quickly went to work.   We filed a lawsuit alleging that Mr. Kitzman had engaged in intimidation, violating the Voting Rights Act that turned 50 this year.  Ultimately, Mr. Kitzman publicly retracted his earlier position and agreed to a settlement.

But Waller County officials were not done.

For the March 2004 primary election, they reduced the number of early voting hours at the polling place closest to the PVAMU campus from 17 hours to 6, which had a particular impact on two PVAMU graduate students who were running for office and were on spring break on Election Day.  We filed a second successful lawsuit to get the hours restored.  One of the students won his primary by a margin far less than the number of students who voted early.  In later years, PVAMU students successfully advocated for a polling place on campus, consulting with the Lawyers’ Committee along the way.

These two lawsuits were the first of many for me at the Lawyers’ Committee, and they represent what the Lawyers’ Committee does well – work effectively with clients and the private bar to achieve tangible results that move America toward justice.  Moving toward justice means looking at racism holistically and recognizing that it seeps into many areas of everyday life, including voting and, as Ms. Bland illustrates, the criminal justice system into which Ms. Bland was unjustly pushed into before her death.

Progress on racial issues requires constant vigilance.  This vigilance includes efforts to reform the criminal justice system throughout the country and recognize its nexus between other civil rights, which is an increasingly important part of the Lawyers’ Committee’s work.

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