A family within a family

USC Gould School of Law • December 5, 2019
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The Black Law Students Association celebrates more than 50 years of building diversity and community at Gould.

By Julie Riggott

Alumna Rosezetta Upshaw (JD 2011) said she made lifelong friends in BLSA. (Credit: Rosezetta Upshaw)

In the 1960s, the Civil Rights and Black Power movements helped define an era of transformative political, social and cultural change in our nation. Some resisted the changes. Others helped usher them in — like USC Gould.

In September 1968, the school supported the establishment of the Black Law Students Association, intended to get more black students into USC's law school and to develop a culture in which they felt comfortable to succeed. 

Thinking back to when he founded BLSA at Gould 51 years ago, Joseph E. Porter III (JD 1971) says, “I think it’s important to remember the context of the times. Student activism had taken hold in the U.S. The war in Vietnam was at a crescendo. Things had to change. We saw ourselves as a part of that change.”

From its earliest days, the law school has sought a diverse student body. The first black graduate earned his JD in 1904. And by the 1940s, black USC graduates were being appointed to judgeships and serving as Los Angeles city attorneys.

“All kudos to the school because they took a concentrated effort to get more black students in (in 1968) to make the law school more reflective of the community it serves,” says Porter. “The Class of 1971 had the most black students in the history of the Law School. By the way, there was also the largest number of Hispanic students ever.”

There were six black students in the Class of 1971: James O. Foster, Ernest R. McKinney, Edward W. Weise, Leon V. Walker, Dorothy L. Washington and Porter. Porter brought them all on board with BLSA.

A National Movement

USC Gould BLSA founder Joseph Porter III and his son Joseph Porter IV (JD 2017).

An opportune relationship with then-Western Center on Law & Poverty Director Derrick Bell — the first full time black law professor at USC — helped spread black law student associations around the United States.

“[Bell] introduced me to a second-year law student at NYU Law School by the name of Algernon J. Cooper,” Porter says. “AJ started the Black American Law Students Association at NYU, a local organization he identified as BALSA. He wanted to start a national organization. We struck up a friendship.”

As a 1L at Gould, Porter also became president of his class and was involved in the formation of the undergraduate black students union at USC. He said the support for black students at Gould was strong, from the faculty, administration and students.

“Dean Dorothy Nelson was supportive of our efforts, as was the Western Center on Law & Poverty. Dorothy Nelson was our Branch Rickey,” he said referring to the executive who signed Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers. “With their support and guidance, USC was instrumental in establishing a network of Black Law Students Associations throughout the country.”

Porter’s relationship with Cooper and other influential Black law students helped start the national organization, giving Gould’s BLSA a recruitment mechanism. Support from faculty and the administration funded conference attendance, which also grew the network.

Porter’s education at the law school led to a career in entertainment law and a longtime connection with Gould that includes mentorship, fundraising and keeping up with BLSA. 

“We had some incredible role models,” he says of faculty like Christopher Stone, Gary Bellow, Terry Hatter and Bell. “One of the obligations that we have to the law school and our own people, no matter the race, is to come out and do a really good job and be role models for what should happen in this society.”

Building up Black lawyers’ presence in law firms

BLSA students with Prof. Jody Armour at his home. (Credit: Jonathan Linton)

Porter says that when he went to law school, there was one black partner at a firm in downtown L.A., and he went on to be the first black president of the State Bar of California. By recent estimates, black lawyers make up 1.83% of partners in U.S. law firms, according to NALP’s 2018 diversity report. BLSA obviously still serves a vital purpose.

One of the reasons Rosezetta Upshaw (JD 2011) chose Gould was the friendly welcome from BLSA, the Student Bar Association and all the student leaders on Admitted Students Day. “It was very helpful throughout law school having somebody to turn to, to ask for help, guidance and direction,” she says.

Now senior trial attorney with Los Angeles Dependency Lawyers Inc. and president of the Black Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles Inc., Upshaw made lifelong friends in BLSA, taking advantage of study and interview practice sessions, and volunteering with the Street Law program that gave middle schoolers an introduction to basic legal rights and what it’s like to be a lawyer.

“One of the things I have always been proud of as a Gould alum is the fact that USC has held the title of being the most diverse law school in the Top 20,” she says. “USC has always been in the forefront, always championed diversity."

Advancing the goals of BLSA

Current BLSA President Jonathan Linton (JD 2021), left, and Vice President Afamefuna “Afam” Ibekwe (JD 2021). (Credit: Jonathan Linton)

Current BLSA President Jonathan Linton (JD 2021) says the group’s goals — inclusion, support and outreach — remain essentially the same as they were in 1968. “Our primary goal is to instill a sense of community in all the African American students at the school and across other law schools in the area,” he says. “We want students to know: You’re not alone. You have somewhere to go and people to reach out to.”

This year underrepresented minority student enrollment rose to 40 percent, with 16 black students in the Class of 2021 and 18 in the Class of 2022.

“This year’s E-board emanates a sense of family that we hope trickles downward throughout the general membership and reflects the true purpose of this organization,” Linton says.

Among the ways the organization supports students is a book swap, biweekly study sessions and study review sessions at Prof. Jody Armour’s home. Social events include a welcome BBQ and last year’s first Black Graduate Student Mixer, bringing together a larger community of students from Gould, Viterbi, Marshall and Keck. “It was an effort to fix a noticeable lack of cohesion between minority students at different schools across the University,” Linton says.

One outreach program that has been going strong for seven years takes Gould students into 54th Street Elementary School, exposing students to business concepts and possible career paths.

With the support of USC Gould Admissions, BLSA members also reach out to local high school and community college students, who are predominantly black, but also Latino. They invite them to campus to talk about higher education and “instill a sense of confidence” in students who have never considered an education or career in law.

Linton says, “We let them know it’s possible, that there are people like them, from similar backgrounds, at Gould. So don’t think you can’t do the same.”

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