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Civil rights group joins CSU students demanding name change for Cleveland-Marshall College of Law

 Cleveland State University students rally with civil rights activists to change law school's name
Gabriel Kramer
Ideastream Public Media
A few dozen protesters gathered for a rally outside of Cleveland State University's law school.

The fight to change the name of Cleveland State University’s law school got some help Thursday evening from civil rights activists.

CSU law students who have been protesting the law school’s name for months reached out to the National Action Network (NAN), a civil rights organization formed by the Rev. Al Sharpton in 1991, to rally outside of the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.

NAN Cleveland president Marcia McCoy said she’s proud of the students and glad to be part of this fight.

“Sometimes you have to stand alone, but they’re not standing alone,” McCoy said. “For them to have the gall, the unmitigated gall, to stand up to power and speak truth to power says a whole lot.”

Activists have been urging for a new college name for nearly two years.
Gabriel Kramer
Ideastream Public Media
Activists have been advocating for a law school name change for nearly two years.

John Marshall became the fourth Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court after being appointed by President John Adams. He is widely credited with advocating for the Supreme Court's power to determine the constitutionality of United States laws.

But he also was a slave owner. And many see that as a disqualifier, despite his political and legal accomplishments. A law school, they reason, should not be named after him.

“If I graduate from here and that name’s still on my degree, will I love my school? I can’t say that. My school wouldn’t love me,” said first year Cleveland State law student Sharilyn Clarke. “It’s so symbolic of the fight that black people fight on the daily.”

A group of CSU students formed “Students Against Marshall” in November to push the university’s board of trustees to make a name change.

Sharilyn Clarke is a first year law student at Cleveland State.
Gabriel Kramer
Ideastream Public Media
Sharilyn Clarke is a first year law student at Cleveland State University.

Clarke proudly wore her Howard University sweatshirt at the rally. She received her undergraduate degree from Howard, but said she can’t wear gear representing her law school.

“It has his name on it. You don’t even have pride enough to wear a T-shirt or a hoodie with the name of your school on it to represent yourself because at that point, am I representing slavery? What exactly am I showing off at that point?” Clarke said.

Controversy over the name of the law school came to a head in the summer of 2020 when protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis swept the nation.

“If we’re fighting for two years to change the damn name, what hope do you have to change any other issue that we care about today?” said third-year CSU law student Nabelh Manaa.

Manaa spoke about the importance of non-Black people being allies in the struggle.

Gabriel Kramer
Ideastream Public Media
Nabelh Manaa and Sharilyn Clarke.

“We need to see each other’s problems as our own, each other’s interests as our own. This is a fight against white supremacy,” Manaa said.

On its website, CSU points to a student petition circulated in 2020 urging the university to drop the reference to Marshall. Law school Dean Lee Fisher organized a committee of faculty, students and alumni to seek input and develop options. Public forums were held in the spring of 2021. But neither the committee nor the school has announced a recommendation regarding the name.

Thursday’s protest comes three months after Cleveland City Council passed a resolution that requested the university change the law school's name.

Law students advocating for the name change want it to happen before the Spring 2022 commencement, but as Crain’s Business Cleveland reported, the CSU board of trustees isn’t ready to make a name change before that deadline.

Cleveland-based lawyer and University of Illinois Chicago Law School graduate Hanna Kassis started an online petition in 2020 encouraging name changes at all education institutions bearing John Marshall's name.

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District, which has John Marshall High School on the city's West Side, is in the midst of a process that would likely change the names of schools in the district that are named after problematic historical figures, including Marshall.

Other universities across the country face similar challenges. The University of Illinois Chicago School of Law changed its name from the UIC John Marshall Law School last year. Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School still bears the name of the former slave owner.

Gabriel Kramer is a Filipino American journalist from Medina, Ohio. He studied journalism at Kent State University and is a proud member of the Asian American Journalists Association.
Jenny Hamel is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media and calls the eastside of Cleveland home. Prior to that, she was a reporter for KCRW, the NPR affiliate in Los Angeles, covering a range of issues from immigration to politics.