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Morris Lecture to focus on significance of Obama election

March 26, 2009

The election of America's first Black president is the focus of the annual John P. Morris Memorial Lecture at 5 p.m., March 31, in Room 105 of Armstrong Hall at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. The event is free and open to the public. "President Obama's election represents something far beyond my most active imagination," said Cecil Patterson Jr. (Class of 1971), a retired judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals, Division One. "This reality still has not completely set in considering all which I have experienced and seen."

Patterson will sit on a panel of four College of Law graduates discussing, "A Dream Realized and the Road Ahead: The Meaning of Barack Obama's Election as President of the United States." The panel will be moderated by Dean Paul Schiff Berman.

"Regardless of whom one voted for in the election, it is difficult not to be moved that this man, the embodiment of our nation's diversity, is now our president," Berman said. "I am therefore pleased that the College of Law will be providing a forum for reflection on the meaning, both personal and political, of this new era in which we find ourselves."

The John P. Morris Memorial Lecture honors John Peyton Morris, a faculty member at the College of Law from 1968 to 1993. Morris was committed to the principles of justice and equal opportunity and worked tirelessly throughout his life to foster diversity. The lecture is sponsored by the John P. Morris Black Law Student Association at the College of Law.

In addition to Patterson, panelists include: Kesha A. Hodge (Class of 2002), Commercial Litigation Associate with Poli & Ball P.L.C. and immediate past president of the Arizona Black Bar; Jocquese Blackwell (Class of 2004), Deputy Public Defender in the Maricopa County Public Defender's Office; and Terence Whatley (Class of 2008), Associate at Snell & Wilmer, L.L.P.

Whatley, whose practice is concentrated in commercial litigation and aviation law, said he expected the election of a Black president to be something far down the road.

"Only five or so years back, I went to the movie theater to see a film called Head of State, a comedy about the election of the first Black president," Whatley said. "A premise of the plot was the strong unlikelihood that anyone but a white man would be elected president. I remember leaving that film wondering if I would ever see a Black president, and how that would come about.

"I imagined myself an old man, looking back over his life, seeing the gradual and rational change in attitudes about race that would lead to the election of the first Black president - at some time in the distant future," Whatley said. "I never thought the next president would be Black. So, I, like many others, I'm sure, find myself in a strange new world that I did not see coming, and in which I honestly have not yet oriented myself."

Hodge, who attended the inauguration, said the election was important in many ways.

"Although the election of President Obama has its own obvious historical significance, we cannot underestimate the impact of the campaign and election as a whole," Hodge said. "First, the vast majority of the American electorate became involved in the process and more educated on the issues facing the country. The American public moved from spectators to commentators. And, second, it reaffirmed the great American dream - that the sky is the limit and the only boundaries are self-imposed.

"On Election Day, after voting, I volunteered at two local predominantly minority elementary schools to host mock elections for the students," Hodge said. "The children were ecstatic about participating. There was an enormous sense of pride as the students cast their votes. A number of the teachers mentioned that hopefully, the election will encourage their students to think outside the box with regards to career options, no longer limited to what they see on television."

Hodge said that, "As an African-American lawyer, it is my hope that Obama's election will continue to tear down the preconceived stereotypes about minorities and place minority lawyers on equal footing at law firms, legal institutions, and within the judiciary. While this country has had lawyers at the helm before, it will be interesting to see how President Obama, a constitutional law scholar, responds to issues involving constitutional interpretation, particularly since that was a major criticism for the previous administration."

Blackwell called the significance of Obama's election of "oceanic proportions."

"In fact, like most of us, I find it hard to describe the event with words," Blackwell said. "His election as the President of the United States, epitomizes the saying, 'The cream will rise to the top.'"

Blackwell also called the election bittersweet.

"On one hand, you can't forget the countless souls that died fighting for the right to be considered human beings and not property, for the countless souls that died for the right to vote, for the countless souls that died fighting for the right to go institutions like ASU," Blackwell said. "But oh, the sweet tastes so good. Those souls that died now see that their fight was not in vain. Those souls that died now see that dreams can come true. It is also sweet because the children of today, regardless of their economic status are able to truly know that they have a chance to accomplish anything their hearts desire."

Whatley said the full significance of Obama's election remains to be seen.

"How will he lead our nation through the uncertain future that lies ahead, and how will our nation interpret it?" Whatley asks. "How will our attitudes about race inform this interpretation, and how will this interpretation inform our attitudes about race? Stay tuned . . . ."

Judy Nichols,
(480) 727-7895
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law