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Simmons College to launch new Center for Racial Justice, following scathing DOJ report

Four singers stand on a large stage in front of a large screen. On the screen is a photograph of a Black man, facing away, with his fist raised into the air.
Danielle Kaye
The new center, named after political activist Jesse Louis Jackson, comes in the wake of the U.S. Department of Justice report on civil rights violations by the Louisville Metro Police Department.

Louisville’s historically Black college announced on Tuesday the creation of a new center to fight systemic racism in the city. The announcement comes on the heels of a U.S. Department of Justice report that found a pattern of civil rights violations by the Louisville Metro Police Department.

The Jesse Louis Jackson Center for Racial Justice, to be housed at Simmons College of Kentucky, will bring together scholars and activists to address the root causes of racial inequality in Louisville, according to Simmons College President Rev. Kevin Cosby.

“The DOJ report necessitated that we react,” Cosby said to a packed house at the St. Stephen Baptist Church. “[Our goal] is to respond to the disparities that are foundational to the police misconduct in our city and in our nation.”

Cosby announced the new center at a service commemorating the 55th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The event, called “From Memorial to Movement,” focused on mobilizing the community to push for charge, rather than calling for specific policy reforms.

The Center for Racial Justice will be supported by a $2 million grant from the Baugh Foundation.

In its 90-page report released last month, the DOJ outlined a pattern of LMPD violating peoples’ civil rights and discriminating against Black residents from 2016 through the end of 2021.

Some attendees at the Tuesday service said they went in search of inspiration — to connect the recent DOJ report to the long history of the fight for racial justice in the United States. WanKeith Smiley, who was born and raised in Louisville, said he showed up to hear a positive message about what King stood for – and how to “change the trajectory of our future.”

But, Smiley said, he’s not convinced the city will enact tangible reforms in response to the DOJ report and pressure from Louisville’s Black community.

“I’m not expecting to hear anything about any reforms,” Smiley said. “I believe there’s a push, but I just wonder if the earwax is out of their ears so that they can actually hear and listen.”

There was some cautious optimism in the crowd as attendees filed out of the church service. 62-year-old Alec Nash, a life-long Louisville resident, said he was a victim of police brutality when he was in his early 20s.

Nothing was ever said or done about it back then. But now, he has a bit more hope than he used to.

“Today, everything has been brought to light. When I was younger, it was done under the cover,” Nash said. “I think things are going to get brighter.”

J. Michael Brown, director of the Pre-Law and Constitutional Studies program at Simmons College, said he hopes that combining scholarship, policy, and activism through the new Center for Racial Justice will help keep the spotlight on racial disparities in Louisville.

Brown said the center will draw on Simmons College scholars to conduct ongoing research on health, environmental, and legal issues, among other topics.

“The community needs an ongoing response, not just to the DOJ report but to the underlying, systemic issues raised in the DOJ report about racism in Louisville,” Brown said.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said DOJ officials will work with Louisville city officials on next steps, culminating in a legally binding agreement called a consent decree that forces changes within the police and city government.

Louisville officials have also said they will provide more information in the coming weeks about the officers whose alleged misconduct was detailed in last month’s DOJ report.

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