When Kathryn Redmond, president of Saint Louis University’s Black Law Students Association, was planning a documentary film series at the law school to celebrate Black History Month, she knew she wanted to include a film about local activist Percy Green.
To her dismay, she discovered there isn’t a documentary about Green who is well-known for McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green and for his activism in St. Louis.
But that didn’t stop her. She knew he still lived in the area and decided to contact him. He agreed to speak at the law school earlier this month.
“To hear firsthand his experiences and how he was treated, that was priceless,” she said after the event.
Green discussed McDonnell Douglas, a landmark civil rights and employment law case often cited and discussed in law school. In the case, Green alleged he had been fired from McDonnell Douglas, where he worked as a technician in the 1960s, because of his activism there and elsewhere and because of his race.
The company claimed he was laid off, but Green said he saw his same job advertised a short while later. McDonnell Douglas wouldn’t hire him back, he said, and he filed suit. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled Green had the right to sue but remanded the case to U.S. District Court which ruled in favor of McDonnell Douglas.
He also discussed activism, such as climbing the under-construction Arch in the 1960s to protest the lack of black contractors working on the project as well as efforts to expose a judge whom he saw as unfair and racist.
Through the lawsuit and activism, Green saw first-hand the inner workings of the judicial system, which he said favored businesses and was not always fair.
For example, Green said when he and other activists were picketing at a bank, the bank was able to get a court injunction to stop the picketing in less than 24 hours, even though he thinks they should not have been able to get it at all. Green also said the bank’s attorney turned out to be the prosecuting attorney.
“That was the type of thing that motivated me,” he said. “Here you’re taught about the law and obeying the law and justice and all that… and then all of a sudden you get a closer look… we began to start seeing that was a bunch of you know what.”
Green also tied in current events, such as problems he sees with police and prosecutorial immunity, and encouraged the crowd to participate in activism, specifically civil disobedience.
He also discussed what he called unconscious racism and told law students to try to consider other people’s perspectives.
“Some of you are going to end up being judges. It’s a matter of what kind of judge you’re going to be,” he said. “Try putting on that black outfit. The same with female.”
Chuck Henson, a trial practice law professor at the University of Missouri who said McDonnell Douglas has been part of his life for 30 years, discussed some of the specific legal implications of the case.
“One issue when looking at McDonnell Douglas, is are we looking at something that was meant to be groundbreaking… or are we looking at how the court handled what was meant to be an exception?” he said.
Henson said the standard from the McDonnell Douglas case “puts it on the back of the person who has been discriminated against to drive the entire litigation forward,” which he sees as one of the biggest issues with the law.
He explained that it’s left to the employee to offer proof that discrimination was intentional. The test requires direct evidence, which often isn’t present, he said.
If people want to fix those issues, Henson said efforts should focus on solutions such as legislative changes.
“The future, I think, is to move us forward in a different direction,” Henson said.
After the event, Henson said he thought it was essential for students to hear a discussion on the subject.
“I don’t think there’s more important work in the law than how we treat each other,” he said.
Green expressed similar sentiments.
“It’s important for them because some of them will undoubtedly practice law. Some of them will end up being judges, it’d be nice for them to have some idea of what the movement was like from a person who had some type of experience with it,” he said.