The American justice system is “ripe for restructure,” Wesley Bell, the first black man to be St. Louis County prosecutor, told MU law students and others on Saturday.
Elected in the wake of the protests in Ferguson and the subsequent reforms to the police and judicial system there, Bell, a former Ferguson city council member, gave his remarks at the 33rd annual Lloyd Gaines Banquet held by the MU Black Law Students Association.
Bell made his pitch to an audience of current, prospective and former students of the MU School of Law.
“Our past does not define our future unless we let it,” said Bell, an alum of the law school.
He said the road to judicial reform is incomplete. He called the system one of the “greatest ills of our society,” in relation to the disproportional and unequal treatment of blacks.
“You are never truly free if your brother is in chains,” he said.
He did provide a hopeful outlook when he told the audience that they are living in a “pivotal moment in our common history, our American history.”
“It is possible to change the laws of the land,” he said, adding that the law school graduates have the ability “to effect change where it matters most.”
The banquet is named and held in the honor of Lloyd Gaines. Gaines was denied admission to the law school because of the color of his skin. At the time, blacks could not attend any law schools in Missouri.
Gaines cited the 14th Amendment in a case that was eventually heard by the Supreme Court.
The court decision did not end the separate-but-equal criteria found in Plessy v. Ferguson. But it did lay the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education.
Bell served on the Ferguson City Council after the killing of Michael Brown and the protests of 2014.
He also served as a public defender and said he witnessed first-hand the “unequal judgment” in the St. Louis County justice system.
During his speech, Bell told the audience that he had always wanted to be a lawyer and remembered learning about Gaines while an undergraduate at Lindenwood University.
Bell told the audience to “remember the struggle of those that have gone before you,” and pointed to 400 years of laws that have oppressed, but also protected, African Americans.
He cited the Dred Scott case, the Emancipation Proclamation, Jim Crow laws in the South and the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s.
He touched on the treatment of his ancestors, exclaiming that he is the descendant of those who “lived, strived and died on the soil of America.”
Blacks “have never ceased their pursuit of rights denied for generations,” he said, and that “struggle remained our constant companion.”
Bell worked with the Obama administration’s Department of Justice while on the Ferguson City Council in order to reform not only parts of the local judicial system, but also the police force.
The reforms led to the implementation of body cameras for police officers, more thorough training and a pay raise for the officers.
In his speech, Bell asked the law students to continue pushing for reforms in the legal system.
“Pledge to carry on this fight,” he said.