By Carlton Lee Martin, Indiana State Public Defender’s Office, 2018 Marion County Bar Association President
Memory is the firing of neurons fired before. The more frequently those neuron patterns fire, the easier they will trigger in the same pattern when used again. In short, repetition breeds swift recall, while discontinuance closes those patterns. Since our memories are formed this way, they are not closed in a vaulted bank waiting to be withdrawn. Our memories are ever-present in those patterns. It is this reason why neuroscientists suggest that the brain does not recognize a past or a future—only the present.
Black history is the present. It’s all around us in ways most can’t see, but can feel. It’s in the stroke of Judge Tanya Walton Pratt’s pen. It’s in the thrust of Judge John M. T. Chavis II’s gavel. It’s in the stride of every African-American attorney standing on the shoulders of Indiana’s great legal giants. Few giants stood as tall as lawyer and leader in the fight for civil rights in Indiana, Henry Johnson Richardson, Jr., (1902-1983).
His son, Yale Law graduate and Professor of Law Henry J. Richardson III, said his father’s desire to elevate society’s view of African-American people beyond that of personal property was influenced by a painful experience. Early in the 1900s, when blacks were not allowed to ride in the front train cars reserved for whites and overbooking caused white passengers to fill the seats of black cars, his father was forced to ride in the baggage car on top of a casket of a WWI soldier. This experience was influential in causing his father to be dedicated to the long-standing Civil Rights Movement—years before the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Dedication is an understatement. He lived the cause. Years after being forced to sit on top of a casket, he became one of the first African-Americans to sit in an Indiana General Assembly seat. He broke barriers in the 1930s by serving as both state representative and judge; becoming active in the fight for desegregation in schooling and housing; and by being mainly responsible for organizing the local unit of the Urban League.
During his three terms in the Assembly, he was co-author of welfare legislation, was author of the first fair employment practices law in the country (1933), helped end discrimination in the dormitories at Indiana University, founded the Federation of Associated Clubs, which led the fight to end segregation in Indianapolis theaters and helped change the state constitution to permit blacks to serve in the Indiana National Guard. He even worked in cooperation with Thurgood Marshall to integrate housing in Evansville in 1953. Additionally, Richardson is a 1928 graduate of the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law School. His portrait now hangs in the halls of the law school.
So, I urge you to open up those patterns! Remember the work of people like Henry Johnson Richardson, Jr. Fire up the neurons of black history—American history. When you do, you will recognize its presence. Respect it, and, perhaps, advance the causes it stood for.