The year was 1967. Protests erupted in Newark after police arrested and beat an African-American cabdriver named John Smith. Police say he attacked them, but some witnesses disagreed. Less than a year later, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at a motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
“A lot of civil unrest that was triggered by a lot of the systemic injustices,” said Ronald Chen, the co-dean of Rutgers Law School.
Chen says it was that same year that Rutgers University created the Minority Student Program at the Law School, otherwise known as MSP.
“In the entire state of New Jersey, there were, perhaps 50 if that, 50 African-American lawyers in New Jersey. Now of course, there are tens of thousands, but the minority student program was intended to address that,” said Chen.
The school says it takes students into the MSP who have overcome social and economic challenges, who have faced discrimination, or are part of groups that are underrepresented in the legal profession.
Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia Valdes is an alumna of the program.
“As an immigrant child, I became an advocate very early on, and by that I mean I knew English and my parents are Dominican immigrants. I was translating for the entire building, so I understood the power of advocacy and the power of education,” said Valdes.
Current third year MSP student Tony Martinez also knows the power of education.
“When I was growing up, my family was living on welfare in a pretty, not the worst neighborhood in Manhattan, but a tough one,” he said. “Growing up and seeing the things I saw, between drug deals on the corner and everyone else going through hard times it, there was a point in my life where I definitely didn’t think that college or anything like that was a serious possibility.”
He says he knew a way to help the people he saw struggling every day was to become a lawyer. Martinez will be the first in his family to graduate from law school.
“My family has been my biggest cheerleader since day one. So, they’re very excited,” he said.
Martinez’ long-term goal is to use his law degree to run for office one day or to become a judge.
“Either way, I think I can make a positive impact on people who are like those from my community who were just down on their luck,” continued Martinez.
Valdes says the MSP is as relevant, if not more today, as it was when it was created 50 years ago.
“What were we rioting about back then? It’s still the same issues — immigration, heroin, inequality, educational disadvantages,” she said.
Her advice to the next generation of graduates like Martinez is to remember why you wanted to be a lawyer in the first place…that will drive change.