Insight

Activism In Action

From action to “Action!,” Jeffery Robinson’s Who We Are project and new documentary chronicle his efforts to expose, confront and put a stop to the country’s long history of anti-Black racism.

Jeffery Robinson’s Fight Against Racism
JE

John Ettorre

February 24, 2022 04:00 PM

Jeffery Robinson was 11 years old when he decided he would become a criminal defense attorney when he grew up.

In the week running up to the historic assassination of Martin Luther King, the then-Memphis adolescent acutely recalls noticing that “even quote-unquote respectable people were getting arrested for demonstrating on behalf of social justice” as King participated in protests on behalf of Memphis sanitation workers. Young Jeffery—who had been the first black student at his Catholic grade school in 1963—somehow knew at that moment that his life’s work would eventually involve defending such people.

With some patient coaching from his dad, a high school principal, he did indeed go on to a sterling career in that field. After graduation from Harvard Law School, he spent seven years representing indigent clients in state court and later in federal court at The Federal Public Defender’s Office. The Seattle-based attorney also served a stint as the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

He is a past president of the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and a winner of that group’s William O. Douglas Award. He was listed in The Best Lawyers in America® from 1993 to 2019 in Criminal Defense before leaving private practice and was selected as one of the top 100 black lawyers in America by Black Enterprise magazine.

But he’s now in the public eye nationally for a different though related reason: his searing but thoughtful documentary about racial injustice in America. It debuted in theaters in selected cities in January and opened around the country this month.

Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America builds off a deeply researched talk he has been giving for a decade. When attorney and filmmaker Sarah Kunstler saw him talk at a continuing legal education seminar, she immediately called her sister and filmmaking partner, Emily, and said she knew what they’d be doing for the next few years—helping to bring this tale to life in a film.

Jeffery Robinson Movie Posted

The sisters--daughters of the late civil rights attorney William Kunstler, who famously defended the Chicago Seven, among many others—knew a good story when they heard it (they had earlier made a much-admired documentary about their father—William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe).

The pair arranged for Jeff to give his talk at New York City’s Town Hall Theater, where they trained seven cameras on him. Then they followed him around the country for two years as he visited iconic historical sites that tell the story of centuries of institutionalized racial brutality while he listened to people talk about race in America.

Robinson visited an oak tree in Charleston, South Carolina where multiple lynchings once took place. He interviewed 107-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle, one of the last survivors of the infamous 1921 Tulsa massacre, and talked to the mother of Eric Garner, whose death from a police chokehold helped touch off the Black Lives Matter movement. “This is part of the history that has been stolen from all of us, and we intend to restore it,” Jeff said in an American Film Institute promotional video.

The resulting two-hour documentary has been a hit on the film festival circuit. It has won awards at a half dozen major festivals, including the Audience Award at the prestigious South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas.

A reviewer for the New York Times called it “a confrontational film, but never an alienating one, and so much of what’s in it is persuasive.” Robinson says every dollar generated by the documentary, including ticket sales as well as the proceeds from the sale to Sony Pictures, is going back into the nonprofit Who We Are Project he established to support the initiative.

In an interview with the Harlem News Network, he said he left the ACLU in March 2021 “because I felt that I wanted to do more in the area of educating America about our true history. About a history that has been erased. About a history that has been hidden, but a history that has been hidden in plain sight.”

The project now encompasses much more than the documentary. Robinson says it will focus on a trio of venues in which to propagate its message: schools, community groups and corporations. Thanks to the Ben & Jerry foundation’s $150,000 contribution there is also a related podcast, produced by Vox Media.

He seems more heartened by than competitive with the rousing success of a parallel initiative—the New York Times’ vaunted 1619 Project, which also seeks to recast the narrative about America’s racial history through multiple platforms.

“There is no one project” on this topic, he says. “I’m thrilled with what the 1619 Project is doing,” drawing on deeply researched work from a wide range of leading scholars of the black experience in America. “They are going to have a major impact in the classroom and the community at large. To the extent that my message is anything like the 1619 Project, I am thrilled and awed.”


John Ettorre is an Emmy-award-winning writer, based in Cleveland. His work has appeared in more than 100 publications, including the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor.

Headline Image: Photo by Joe Mabel

Related Articles

Memphis Bar Gets First Black Female President


by Anissa Cordova

Best Lawyers is celebrating listed lawyer Tannera George Gibson who has become the first ever black female president of the Memphis Bar Association.

First Black Female President for Memphis Bar

WATCH: Corporations Question: Is Our Brand Racist?


by Best Lawyers

Two thought leaders join the CEO of Best Lawyers to discuss the legal considerations major brands and sports franchises are facing as pressure mounts to eliminate culturally insensitive mascots, names and brand identities.

Ending Racist Branding

Trending Articles

Announcing the 2023 The Best Lawyers in America Honorees


by Best Lawyers

Only the top 5.3% of all practicing lawyers in the U.S. were selected by their peers for inclusion in the 29th edition of The Best Lawyers in America®.

Gold strings and dots connecting to form US map

Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2023


by Best Lawyers

The third edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America™ highlights the legal talent of lawyers who have been in practice less than 10 years.

Three arrows made of lines and dots on blue background

Announcing the 2023 The Best Lawyers in Canada Honorees


by Best Lawyers

The Best Lawyers in Canada™ is entering its 17th edition for 2023. We highlight the elite lawyers awarded this year.

Red map of Canada with white lines and dots

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers® in the United States


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers listed in the 28th Edition of The Best Lawyers in America® and in the 2nd Edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2022.

2022 Best Lawyers Listings for United States

Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Canada 2023


by Best Lawyers

The year 2023 marks the second edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Canada, highlighting professionals earlier in their legal careers all across Canada.

Blue background with white stairs formed out of lines

All Eyes to the Ones on the Rise


by Rebecca Blackwell

Our 2023 honorees recognized in Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America™ tell us more about how their path to law formed, what lead them to their practice areas and how they keep steadfast in their passion to serve others.

Person walking between glass walls towards window

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers in Canada™


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers listed in the 16th Edition of The Best Lawyers in Canada™ and 1st Edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Canada.

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers in Canada™

Press and Publicity: How Television and Social Media Impact Legal Careers


by Justin Smulison

In recent years, with social media giving minute by minute reporting, many lawyers are finding themselves thrust into a spotlight they never planned for. How are lawyers grappling with unexpected stardom, media coverage and merciless influencers?

Close up of camera at news station

Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch – The Future of Legal Talent Looks Bright


by Justin Smulison

Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch is launching its second edition in the United States, and after talking with both a company leader and esteemed lawyers on the list, the importance of this prestigious list is evident.

Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America 2022

How A Claim Can Create A ‘Class’ of Its Own


by Justin Smulison

One civil claim can help a victim recover, prevent others from the same harm and even save lives. Tom Connick has experienced this directly, having been at the ground floor of injury claims that have led to high-value class action settlements.

Fire Consuming Paper Money

Famous Songs Unprotected by Copyright Could Mean Royalties for Some


by Michael B. Fein

A guide to navigating copyright claims on famous songs.

Can I Sing "Happy Birthday" in Public?

The Real Camille: An Interview with Johnny Depp’s Lawyer Camille Vasquez


by Rebecca Blackwell

Camille Vasquez, a young lawyer at Brown Rudnick, sat down with Best Lawyers CEO Phillip Greer to talk about her distinguished career, recently being named partner and what comes next for her.

Camille Vasquez in office

Protecting Small Business Owners: Trial Experts Connick Law LLC Notoriously Successful with Fire Litigation


by Justin Smulison

When small business owners become the target of insurance companies in fire-related lawsuits, hiring a firm with a reputation for understanding the science of fire suppression trials can save their livelihoods.

Gold Indoor Sprinkler Heads on Red Background

Introducing Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch


by Best Lawyers

Meet the next wave of top legal talent.

Ones to Watch

Announcing the 2022 "Best Law Firms" Rankings


by Best Lawyers

The 2022 “Best Law Firms” publication includes all “Law Firm of the Year” recipients, national and metro Tier 1 ranked firms and editorial from thought leaders in the legal industry.

The 2022 Best Law Firms Awards

Choosing a Title Company: What a Seller Should Expect


by Roy D. Oppenheim

When it comes to choosing a title company, how much power exactly does a seller have?

Choosing the Title Company As Seller