The seventh annual MLK Symposium to present topics on race, immigration and LGBTQ rights in a legal framework

When Judy McInturff was growing up in post-World War II Tennessee, she was encouraged to hide her Jewish heritage. “My grandmother always told me, ‘Straighten your hair, we're going out,'” said McInturff, the director of Continuing Legal Education at the Columbus Bar Association. “‘We might have to go to the white country club.'”

That ability to pass in society saved her family the brunt of discrimination, McInturff said. In the years that followed, the synagogue acted as safe harbor — a place where McInturff didn't have to disguise her appearance, and where she was able to practice her faith free of outside fears. That is, until recently. “Now I'm scared all over again,” she said.

McInturff is referring to the October 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, which resulted in the deaths of 11 people. It's just one of many hate-fueled acts of violence, such as the killing of Heather Heyer at the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, or the 2015 Charleston church shooting, that have rattled the public sphere in recent years.

And in that climate, McInturff will help present the seventh annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Civil Rights Symposium on Friday, Jan. 25, at the Columbus Bar Association. With a focus on “A History of Hate,” speakers will cover myriad topics, including the rise of the KKK and Hitler, bias in immigration policies, racialized trauma and implicit bias in schools.

“Sometimes history has a way of repeating itself,” said Michael Payton, executive director of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. “Dr. King's dream is just that: a dream. And it's a deferred dream.”

The symposium is targeted to lawyers (Columbus Bar members and non-members) seeking continuing legal education (CLE) credits. But McInturff and Payton hope the impact will extend beyond fulfilling professional requirements.

“We're a nation of laws,” Payton said. “It was King that said a law can't make a person love you, but it can keep him from lynching you. What we do here sharpens the focus of lawyers and makes them more effective with regard to addressing these issues and being more responsible in their communities.”

The symposium is also open to the public, and McInturff and Payton want to attract more attendees outside of law to avoid “preaching to the choir.”

“We need people who maybe could identify and interrupt some of their ingrained biases and think in a different way,” McInturff said.

Past symposiums have been recorded for that purpose, and some of the responses have demonstrated the need for extending education to the community. For example, McInturff said they received an anonymous complaint about their panel of journalists discussing the importance of a free press.

“They wanted to know who these people were [on the panel], and why they were so biased,” McInturff said. The person also characterized the discussion as “hate personified” and “fake news.”

The current social and political reality gives McInturff and Patyon pause about the world they are leaving for future generations.

“I grew up during the '60s,” Payton said. “I can remember everything from guard dogs to fire hoses. … Some of the things you'd think we'd be [saying] happened back then are now happening today. I don't know that my grandkids are necessarily going to have it much easier.”

Quoting Dr. King, Payton said he identifies another troubling similarity between the past and present: the “appalling silence of the good people.”

“We as citizens have a high duty to speak truth to power — that if you see wrong, to stand up and say that it's wrong,” he said.

Speakers at this year's symposium include attorneys, as well as a City of Columbus LGBTQ cabinet member and representatives from the Kirwan Institute for Race & Ethnicity. Closing out the day will be Billy White, who covers up hate symbols for free at Red Rose Tattoo in Zanesville.

“He's had the opportunity to confer with them about how they came to have those evil things and, most importantly, how is it that there's redemption here?” Payton said. “I find that to be a compelling thing.”

White is proof that a single person can have a significant impact, which is another point McInturff hopes attendees will take from the symposium. “You can make a difference,” she said. “Don't be afraid to examine your own biases. … And you've got to examine those things in order to be a good human.”