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Former judge talks about Civil Rights and supporting disenfranchised fathers
At Friday’s For the Children Partners in Prevention Fatherhood Summit ...
The Rev. Thurman Echols (left) hosted Judge Arthur Burnett (center) and Curtis Smith, grants administrator for the Virginia Department of Social Services, at the Fatherhood Summit on Friday. The summit was held at Moral Hill Missionary Baptist Church, where Echols is the pastor. It was coordinated by For the Children Partners in Prevention. (Bulletin photos by Mike Wray)
Content, secure children who become productive members of society all get their start with responsible parenting. It’s time to bring all fathers into that picture, was the message of Friday’s Fatherhood Summit.
The summit was organized by For the Children Partners in Prevention and held at Moral Hill Missionary Baptist Church.
The moderator was Curtis Smith, grants administrator for the Virginia Department of Social Services.
“Fatherhood issues have become more visible on the state level, resulting in more funding,” Smith said. It was important to create support services “to strengthen the emotional and financial role” of non-custodial fathers.
In 2009, funding came through in the form of a grant. For the Children was one of the first agencies to be funded, he said.
Patricia Carter, executive director of For the Children, said her agency has a three-fold purpose: to strengthen families by helping children make strong decisions; to help fathers be more responsible; and to make marriages better and stronger.
James Esters, who heads For the Children’s fatherhood program, said it is important for older men to be active role models and mentors to younger men, who don’t have the same sense of responsibility that was taken for granted in earlier generations. Fathers also need the support of the mothers of their children.
Smith introduced Judge Arthur Burnett Sr., the executive director of the National African American Drug Policy Coalition (NAADPC) and a former federal senior judge. The NAADPC is a coalition of predominately black professional organizations.
Among many other professional roles, Burnett was the first black US Magistrate, Smith said. He was a legal advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
When Burnett retired in 1998, he “took senior judge status with the Children’s Defense Fund.” In 2004, he became the full time director of NAADPC, Smith said.
Burnett talked about his experiences as a student in the height of the Civil Rights movement. He grew up in Spotslyvania and was a top student. “Everyone expected me to go to Tuskegee” Institute because he was successful in farming and animal care. However, he wanted to be a lawyer.
His high school principal told him that “there is no future for negro lawyers” and recommended he become a teacher and preacher instead, he said. However, Burnett would not give up: “I said I wanted to change life in America.”
In 1952 he went to Howard University. It was a challenge, because he spent his first semester doing remedial high school work to get up to level. He wanted to be on par with his peers, though, so for the second semester he talked the college administration into allowing him to take 27 credit hours (about double the normal courseload).
He made an impression on the administration, which led him to “the most difficult decision” in his life when he was 19. Though he planned on attending law school at Howard, a black university, administrators asked him to apply to law schools for white students.
The landmark case Brown Vs. Board of Education had just been won, ending segregation in schools. Burnett was asked to apply to the top 10 law schools in the nation. On behalf of the NAACP, “‘We want to use you as the key plaintiff’” for desegregation, he said he was told.
The chief counsel was Thurgood Marshall. Two U.S. Marshals were to have been assigned to Burnett to make sure he did “not get assassinated.”
Before the plan was to take effect, the NAACP’s attention was diverted to Arkansas, where matters suddenly had become more serious: That state had closed all its schools for black students.
With much less fanfare and controversy, though still a tough road, Burnett’s case was settled with the Commonwealth of Virginia. The state gave him “a free education” to attend New York University Law School, and the school gave him a scholarship as well.
He was the only black student, he said, and he made the highest grades.
Burnett worked in the Justice Department in 1960. Bobby Kennedy, brother of President John F. Kennedy, asked Burnett to be a secret liaison between him and “the Martin Luther King movement.” Other people “thought I was a butler” for Kennedy. “They did not know I was his eyes and ears.”
Now, as director of the NAADPC, Burnett continues to face “challenges of inequality,” he said. With the nation’s increasing mix of groups of people, including Muslims and Hispanics, “biases and prejudices are more pronounced today than in the 1950s, when it was just a white and black issue,” he said.
Burnett talked about the three purposes of NAADPC: to promote self-determination; to cultivate a work ethic in youth; and to overcome fragmentation in organizations so groups can work more efficiently together.
Drug abuse and addiction is a disease, he said, and should be treated in a medical manner instead of by incarceration. Society, particularly churches, should “work with ex-offenders returning to society” to help them be better parents “so their children will not repeat the mistakes they made.”
When people are released from prison, they need help with affordable housing and job training. They should spend quality time with their children. Welcoming committees and mentors would ease their transitions and help them not return to illegal and damaging activities, he said.