Students at the Saint Louis University School of Law this fall will have the opportunity to take personal injury law from a new professor, Justin Hansford. But this 29-year-old scholar will hit his stride next spring, when he first teaches legal ethics at SLU.
“I plan to specialize in ethics,” Hansford told The American. “I am interested in teaching students how to be lawyers who fight for the little guy.”
A third-generation legacy graduate of Howard University, Hansford advocates in particular for “the little guy” of African descent. So much so that when his law school, Georgetown Law, did not publish a law review with the proper focus to accept the article he had written on the Marcus Garvey case, he forced the university to start one.
“Up until then, no journal at Georgetown focused on racial injustice,” Hansford said. “They had journals on poverty, international law – everything except racial inequality. We had protests and submitted proposals, and the administration eventually decided to publish this journal.”
Hansford’s colleagues in the struggle to form The Journal of Modern Critical Race Perspectives at Georgetown Law – such as Breana Smith, who is now a criminal defense attorney practicing in Chicago – are precisely the sorts of students he intends to nurture at Saint Louis University.
“It wasn’t just black students, either,” Hansford said. “Elizabeth Mathos’ family is Portuguese, but she grew up in Africa. She is a white person very much interested in human rights and law, now working in legal aid in Boston. Mathew Cregor is a white American who went on to work at the Southern Poverty Law Center; he uses his law degree to help people.”
In a line one expects students will be hearing more often on campus at SLU, Hansford emphasized, “It’s helpful to tell people not all lawyers fit the derogatory stereotypes.”
‘Jailing a Rainbow’
When he is not teaching, Hansford plans to rewrite his essay on Garvey, “Jailing a Rainbow: the Marcus Garvey Case,” into a book. This is work that both corrects the historical record, in Hansford’s opinion, while setting the stage for progress in the crucial arena of economic justice.
“My thesis is that Marcus Garvey was wrongly convicted of mail fraud, and after this conviction he was later deported and never returned to the U.S.,” Hansford said. “His conviction played a large role leading to the end of his movement. Marcus Garvey’s vision for economic justice suffered from his incarceration and the ultimate marginalization of his movement.”
At its height there were almost 5 million members of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. The Black Star Line, its flagship, allegedly was a fraudulent Ponzi scheme, according to prosecutors.
“My article goes through the facts to prove it wasn’t a Ponzi scheme, it was a legitimate business endeavor – what today would be called social entrepreneurship or a non-profit organization,” Hansford said. “But they critiqued it under the rubric of a for-profit, money-generating endeavor, and they were wrong to do that.”
Other factors outside of Garvey’s control were responsible for the decline of the Black Star Line, Hansford argues: the shipping industry experienced a downturn, and a junior FBI agent named J. Edgar Hoover targeted Garvey, using tactics of harassment that would become known as COINTELPRO.
“Hoover worked on the Garvey case before he became head of the FBI; this was his first big case,” Hansford said. “On the Marcus Garvey case, Hoover conceived of the dastardly tactics he later used – he really created those for Marcus Garvey.”
Hansford does not paint a simple portrait of white-dominated government targeting the leader of a black economic self-empowerment movement. He also looks at infighting within the African-American leadership that, he said, led to a critical split that hampers progress of African Americans to this day.
“I also talk about the ongoing feud between Marcus Garvey and the NAACP. The African-American activists involved fought against each other to their mutual detriment,” Hansford said.
“I admire all of them – Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Phillip Randolph. But their feuding did more to harm the movement than to help it, and I would hope history doesn’t repeat itself.”
He does more than hope for a more productive future. In his scholarship and teaching, he intends to help forge it.
“Moving forward in the 21st century, there is a great deal of economic inequality affecting African Americans in particular, and I feel that is one of the negative consequences of this feud – as if the goal of civil and political rights were mutually exclusive of economic justice,” Hansford said.
“Garvey’s program was seen as antithetical to the NAACP program. With that conflict, it was as if you had to choose one or the other, and I feel that is the wrong perspective.”