Stay Civil, America: Defending Legal Rights in the 21st Century

Say “civil rights,” and people picture demonstrations and marches from the 1950s and 1960s exemplified by images of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. Fewer will think of the hate crimes recently perpetrated in Charlottesville or Oak Creek, Wisconsin, or of the recent Boston Globe spotlight report that addressed the city's reputation as the “most racist city” in America, where the median net worth for Black families is $8. Torey Cummings, an Assistant United States Attorney in the Civil Rights Unit of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts, seeks to continue the conversation of civil rights through the modern age in her course, Fighting Discrimination: Defending Legal Rights in the 21st Century.

“There are many civil rights courses talking about civil rights history particularly in the 1960s,” Cummings said. “but there aren’t really many courses about the civil rights movement and changes happening in the present day.” While “civil rights” encompasses a variety of social causes, Cummings focuses exclusively on recent cases from the federal courts, where she herself has worked for over a decade.

Each week finds the class tackling a different subject of civil rights, including everything from housing and employment to LGBT rights and immigration. Most recently, students focused on questions of religious discrimination and were visited by a member of the Muslim community who faced difficulty in establishing a Muslim burial site in Western Massachusetts due to discrimination from certain town members. Staying in line with Cummings’s goal to address only modern civil rights issues, assignments draw on recent news articles and supreme court cases, including government case-related documents. “I try to assign readings from different sides of the political spectrum, so students will be exposed to different viewpoints,” Cummings said. “However, since this year many of the students seem to be near the same page politically, I will also try to respectfully present opposing viewpoints during class when I think it’s important or when no one else in class will, so that we can have a more robust discussion.”

By the end of the semester, students are expected to have completed a final diversity project, in which each student must meet with a group of individuals protected by civil rights laws who are different from themselves and present on their experiences with the law today. “I want students to go out of their comfort zones and really try to talk with someone from a population they haven’t had a lot of experience with before,” Cummings said. “I think most people who are approached for this project actually appreciate the opportunity and welcome those who want to learn more.”

Past projects have included investigations on human trafficking or people with disabilities at Tufts. One student even spent a year working at a homeless shelter for LGBT youth as a result of the project.

For Cummings, the diversity project is the real highlight of her class. “A few students from the course last year told me how meaningful the diversity project was for them, and frankly, the reason I give this assignment is because of a similar project I completed during my Master’s program in social work, a project which I still remember much of today.”

While most of her students are not considering a career in law, Cummings's course teaches students the invaluable skill of social understanding. “I think it’s important for individuals, no matter the profession, to understand civil rights not only in the workplace but within a community,” Cummings said. “You need to understand some of the challenges of marginalized populations before you can discover the little things that you can do to ensure that people have equal opportunity.”

About the Author

Emma Hodgdon is a senior studying English literature. Apart from reading Gothic fiction, she can be found practicing cello for the Symphony and Chamber Orchestras, or dancing with the university’s ballroom dance team. She spends her free time experimenting with calligraphy, learning to speak Chinese, and caring for her succulents, Verotchka and Geraldine.

Experimental College

Tufts University

95 Talbot Avenue

Medford, MA 02155

(617) 627-3384

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