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Brown, Massive Resistance, and the Lawyer’s View: A Nashville Story

Posted by on Tuesday, October 19, 2021 in Articles, Essays, Volume 74, Volume 74, Number 5.

Daniel J. Sharfstein | 74 Vand. L. Rev. 1435 (2021) |

For nearly 75 years, the Vanderbilt Law Review has sought to publish rigorous, intellectually honest scholarship. In publishing the following Essay, we seek to provide an equally unflinching look at one way in which Vanderbilt Law School and its graduates have participated in the creation of inequities that persist today.

The Law School has produced legions of graduates committed to the pursuit of justice. Some alumni’s legacies, however, are more complicated. Brown, Massive Resistance, and the Lawyer’s View: A Nashville Story tells the story of one such alumnus. In many ways, Cecil Sims is a model of an engaged lawyer-citizen. A 1914 Vanderbilt Law School graduate, he was deeply involved in Nashville’s civil society, serving as an advisor to Vanderbilt University, Meharry Medical College, and the Davidson County Board of Education. Sims was a driving force in reopening Vanderbilt Law School after World War II— without his efforts, the school might not even exist. Today, the Law School’s most prominent annual lecture series still bears the Sims name.

Vanderbilt Law School’s history is intertwined with Sims’s story. Sims’s story, in turn, is intertwined with the racial oppression and inequality still present in Nashville today. Sims was a key architect of the city’s school desegregation plan, which, though in compliance with Brown v. Board of Education, effectively maintained racial apartheid in public schools. If Sims’s legacy includes his contributions to the Law School, so too does it encompass his role in helping to create Nashville’s still-segregated school system. An honest account of Sims’s life—and of Vanderbilt Law School’s institutional history— requires both stories.

Cecil Sims shows us that lawyers are not merely passive participants in the legal and political systems in which we work. Lawyers are leaders, for good or for ill. Stories like that of Cecil Sims, when told honestly, help us to think critically about our own roles as students, professionals, and scholars in the legal system. As Professor Sharfstein writes, lawyers construct worlds. We share this history in the hope that we may build better ones.

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Daniel J. Sharfstein