Night of Remembrance and Recognition – Lawyers Association of St. Louis and Mound City Bar Host 27th Annual Black History Month Dinner
On March 1, 2022, the Lawyers Association of St. Louis and the Mound City Bar Association presented their 27th Annual Honorable Theodore McMillian Black History Month Dinner at the elegant Live! By Loews Hotel at Ballpark Village in downtown St. Louis. Gausnell, O’Keefe & Thomas sponsored the event, which was a near sell-out in-person crowd. Last year, the event was held virtually because of COVID protocols, making it genuinely nice this time to see old faces and network with many amazing local professionals, lawyers and judges, and members of the Lawyers Association and Mound City Bar.
This event pays homage to the founding principles of the Lawyers Association, organized in 1934, and that of the Mound City Bar, established 12 years before, to improve the administration of justice; uphold the honor of the legal profession; promote professional development; and provide service to the community. But, perhaps most significantly, both organizations recognized the singular importance of diversity and inclusion in the practice of law. Diversity of voices and opinions was the vision of those early founders of the Lawyers Association, who saw a need to allow admission to any lawyer, no matter their race, gender, religion, or area of practice.
The event continues to honor the fond memory and incredible legacy of one of the Lawyers Association’s greatest members, Judge McMillian (Award of Honor recipient 1970), who passed in 2006. In addition to his many amazing accomplishments, Judge McMillion was the first African American Circuit Judge and Court of Appeals judge in the State of Missouri, and also the first to serve on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.
This program was introduced by the current presidents of each of the sponsoring organizations, Ms. Teri Appelbaum for the Lawyers Association, and Mr. Kenneth Goins for the Mound City Bar. The featured speakers of the night were also firsts in their current positions, The Honorable Robin Ransom, the first African American female judge to sit on the Missouri Supreme Court, and St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell, the first African American to serve in that role. One of the honored guests of Mr. Bell was current Chief of Police for St. Louis County, Col. Kenneth Gregory, also the first African American to serve in that position.
Mr. Bell discussed the importance of Black History Month and celebrating the accomplishments of the trailblazers before him. He paid respects to the night’s namesake and evoked the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to highlight the main focus of his remarks, that of civil justice reform. In Mr. Bell’s perspective, social injustice has at its root poverty and the perpetual cycle it leads to. He quoted Dr. King who said, “True compassion is not merely flinging a coin to a beggar, comes from seeing that the edifice which produces beggars needs to be restructured and refurbished.”
Mr. Bell described the work his office is engaging in to foster trust, equity and renew a sense of fairness and justice in St. Louis County. The main focus of his office’s efforts is civil justice reform. Mr. Bell noted recidivism rates are at an alarming seventy percent across the country, creating a need for his office to focus on how to fix this issue. He mentioned recent reforms made to the cash bail system for low-level non-violent offenders as a step in the right direction.
In order to further address these issues, his office employed multiple new programs, including a low-level non-violent offender diversion program, modeled after the federal court’s system and a group of data analysts. The recidivism rate for their diversion program as compared to the nationwide numbers is only 8%, or a 92% success rate. He is working hard to rebuild a relationship of trust with the local community, by using special prosecutors in sensitive cases where a possibility of conflict of interest is present. They are also employing safeguards to make sure people who get confined are fairly prosecuted.
Mr. Bell believes with reform of the justice system and addressing the root causes of crime, that societal changes started by Dr. King will continue to bring about justice for all. We all have a part to play in the fight to right these wrongs.
He introduced the event’s second featured speaker, the Hon. Robin Ransom, the first Black woman appointed to the Missouri Supreme Court.
Judge Ransom explained with her opening remarks she was working through her shyness and dislike for attention in even speaking at the event. However, she was met with a warm welcome and her remarks were punctuated with laughter, applause and universal appreciation. Her words reflected a woman devoted to being the best person, lawyer and judge she could be. She began by describing the person who had the most significant influence on her life, her father. Her dad worked as a firefighter and worked through many inequities in serving his community, such as a segregated firehouse and discrimination even from his fellow firefighters.
She recited a few lines from her father’s favorite poem, which he would read to her often, titled “Desiderata,” by Max Ehrmann:
“Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”
The words of the poem served as an inspiration for her to live her best life. Her father’s struggles taught her how best to fight societal inequities. She shared that her father always told her to “stand proud, walk with her head high and be stoic and unapologetic. To be proud of who she is and to not let others define her or her destiny.” She knew it was important for her to persevere not necessarily for herself but for those who came behind her.
Judge Ransom was only one of 13 Black females in her law school class, only five of which graduated. She cited the fact that of all 50 states, nearly half do not have a single person of color as a judge on their supreme courts. A recent survey of the Missouri state judiciary showed that as of 2018 only 5% of judges were non-white males, and only 3% non-white females.
Each time she takes the bench at the Supreme Court, Judge Ransom is overwhelmed by emotion, by the impact and positive ripple effect on future generations her appointment has made. She is acutely mindful of the legacy she is leaving. Another lesson from her father, she believes strongly that the law is supposed to work for all of us, no matter our race, color or creed. While she acknowledged that bias is inevitable, it is in dealing with it and reacting to it that matters. As Henry David Thoreau noted, “The question is not what you look at that matters but what you see.” She encouraged young people to seek understanding of our systems, to run for office and serve on juries. By laying the groundwork for future generations, Judge Ransom sets a modern-day example of the power of the legacy of Black history. She is every day making a difference in the lives of others by striving for excellence and being an example for others.
She revealed that when she was young, it was her dream to be a rock star, and here she is, achieving that status, as a judge on Missouri’s Supreme Court.
Article written by attorneys Jaylen Henderson and William Thomas | Gausnell, O’Keefe & Thomas, LLC