One Eye on the Future, One on the Past: Lessons from Pro Bono in Mississippi

Katie Rohner
Public Interest Program Coordinator

Mississippi native, William Faulkner, wrote “the past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  Had he not written those words over 60 years ago, one might conclude that Faulkner meant them specifically for present-day Biloxi.  For eighteen UCI Law students spending their spring break at the Mississippi Center for Justice (MJC), Hurricane Katrina, the BP Oil Spill, and a crippled educational system brought the past into sharp focus.

Projects were doled out at MCJ on our first full day there and, despite the Mardi Gras festivities (which were not completely ignored by us), students went to work immediately.

Katrina left in her wake a mountain of complicated title and ownership issues that one group grappled with on behalf of clients seeking long-overdue funds to repair their homes.  Among the varied property and estate issues they examined, they discovered that many people still live under blue tarp roofs–nearly ten years after the storm.  Where two out of three homes were damaged and half of those completely destroyed by Katrina, we learned that the bequeathing of a bag of unopened t-shirts could be as important to a client as passing along a beloved broach because it too had survived the storm.

A tour of Biloxi on our first day led us past rubble, ubiquitous “For Sale” signs fronting vast empty acreage, high-water marks denoting Katrina’s surge painted in thick blue lines around utility poles, and the new housing reality of homes built two to three stories high on stilts.  The mere fact that tours are still offered to examine the aftermath of Katrina, nearly ten years after the storm, is a testament to the palpable presence of the past in the lives of Biloxi residents, but also to the spiritual strength and will to survive of its citizens.

Several Students tackled educational adequacy and due process legal issues, many of which appeared mired in a static, politics-as-usual philosophy.  Researching areas of law that included rights granted by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, IDEA, Judicial Conduct, and the separation of powers under the U.S. Constitution, the students drafted memos, motions, and complaints in an effort to help public school students receive the educational program to which they are entitled.

The students assigned to the Jackson and Indianola offices of MCJ also worked on educational cases, among other issues.  No doubt they encountered the embittered history of segregation and the disenfranchisement of African-Americans, which, according to lawyers at the Center, are still significantly affecting the economic and social progress of many residents of Mississippi’s capital and of the Delta region.

Coincidentally, the Jackson volunteers were in town when the city buried its progressive and passionate mayor, Chokwe Lumumba, who was a symbol of change in that city and whose election signaled a kind of détente between past and present.  The Delta-bound students, besides gaining legal experience in the Indianola office and presenting research to students at Ole Miss, toured both the B.B. King Museum (an Indianola native) and visited the site where Emmett Till was killed – a haunting reminder of the tangled roots of Mississippi’s past.

At the end of the week, many students said that they learned how important non-legal work could be to the advancement of cases, particularly with regard to novel issues.  This certainly was true for two students who culled through eight years-worth of documents, viewed video footage, and spoke with community activists in order to shape the narrative of a grassroots advocacy campaign to protest Gulfport, Mississippi’s misuse of $600 million of Katrina relief funds to build a port instead of provide money to disaster victims.  Their article about economic relief, environmental justice, and community engagement in the largest single public infrastructure investment in Mississippi will be published on the website, Rethink Mississippi, and will help influence the outcome of legal efforts to redirect aid.

And, of course, the Deep Horizon (BP) oil spill of 2010 brought financial ruin to many residents who are still struggling for relief.  As oil residue still surfaces occasionally on Biloxi beaches, students met with fisherman and owners of businesses which supported the once-bustling seafood industry and helped them file medical and economic claims.  The students toured the area most affected by the spill and learned how onerous it is for the average person to file a claim.  Not surprisingly, they also learned that it’s a toss up as to whom these victims distrust more – government or insurance companies.

But, despite the disasters that befell Biloxi residents over the past decade, and which bring our law students to its shores each spring to volunteer, the story of Biloxi is one of resilience and determination.  I met a shopkeeper in town who lost two homes, a seafood processing business, and, most poignantly, a son to Katrina.  She said that she, like all other Biloxians, knows that when tragedy hits, it’s “time to put your big girl panties on” and move forward, keeping one eye on the future and one on the past.