Angela Allen-Bell is a respected local, national and international legal scholar and expert on civil and human rights, social and restorative justice and the interplay between race and justice. It was her research that catapulted the recent movement that, in November 2018, successfully ended the use of non-unanimous juries in Louisiana. And she is one of the founding members of the advocacy team that led this effort to reform Louisiana’s jury system through the adoption of legislation that would require unanimous juries in criminal trials in Louisiana state courts. She has the distinction of having worked on several other historic advocacy campaigns, such as the Angola 3 case, the case of Soledad Brother John Clutchette, and the case of Robert Holbrook.
She is an activist scholar who has adopted Jeremiah 5:1 as a personal edict to seek justice. Her signature traits are her never-ceasing desire to fight injustice and her tireless commitment to dismantling systems of oppression.
Angela Allen-Bell is a person for the moment, a Person for 2021.
When I became an attorney 22 years ago, I didn’t plan to use my legal training in the way that I have. Working in the justice system propelled me in this direction. My work recognizes a judicial system that has shortcomings and one that is, in effect, a race-based system. It seeks to create a new approach to justice that will lead to reduced recidivism by achieving accountability and healing. It also calls for a more holistic approach to reform that looks beyond the individual and looks, simultaneously, to a state and nation also in need of reform. It seeks to achieve those reforms so future generations can experience life free of discrimination, systemic racism and oppression. This work is transformative. I am paid in future returns.
How does that fit with your life’s work? Passion is when you, because of a calling, willingly walk in the direction of a challenge that most people would turn away from. My passion is exposing, disrupting and dismantling inequities and injustices. My grandmothers were domestic workers (much like the ladies depicted in “The Help”). During my childhood, it never occurred to me that the world was marginalizing African-American women in terms of career options. My grandmothers adapted to the limited space that this country would allow them to exist in and, astonishingly, they somehow made work a source of pride and honor. Adulthood forced an understanding of all they had been deprived and denied by a world that has been unwilling to accept the genius of Black women. It is because of these two ladies and ladies like them that I am unwilling to wear shackles of any sort. Living my calling―teaching, researching and advocating―is a form of homage I pay to them. They couldn’t; so I must.
2020 was a year of medical, social, political, and economic upheaval. What did it teach you about yourself, your work, or your community? 2020 reinforced my position that, until Reconstruction is meaningfully completed in this country, we will remain where we were socially in 1865 (when many would argue slavery officially ended in this country). In 1865, Black bodies were released with little more than legal equality. They lacked social and political equality. Collectively, that remains the state of affairs. The events of 2020 reinforced this conclusion and renewed the importance of my work. 2020 also forced some irrefutable spiritual revelations. Normalcy stopped. Systems stop. Man’s power stopped. In the wake of this, who could not “Ascribe strength to God”? (Psalm 68:34). 2020 served as a reminder that “power belongs to God.” (Psalms 62:11). I tremble in fear for those who enter 2021 with a thirst for power or a will to utilize power abusively.
What has been the best thing to do while quarantined? Despite all the suffering it has brought, the pandemic has been one of the best opportunities I have had in my lifetime to immerse myself into prayer and reflection. Prayer is definitely the best thing to do during this season of uncertainty and hardship.
What advice would you give others about pressing forward despite the circumstances? I once read, “What oxygen does for the lungs, hope does for the soul: without it, we would die inwardly.” I refuse to die inwardly so, when discouragement sets in, I remind myself of the enslaved whose every waking day brought the assurance trauma, suffering, subjugation and the deprivation of joy or peace. Somehow, they found the inner strength to face what awaited―they fought inward death. I find strength in this. It reminds me that being a survivor and an overcomer is in my genetic makeup. I see their faces looking at me entertaining defeat over the things I might fret about and know it would be an insult to their collective sacrifices if I did not just press forward, but thrive. My advice is to take this mental journey when it is needed. I also know the importance of warfare as a response to despair. I claim the territory that was promised to me at times like this. I loudly profess these words until I believe them: “Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you.” (Luke 10:19).
What’s your motto for 2021? When an interviewer asked me to describe what it feels like being a lawyer who does what I do in the South, I said, “Each day, I feel less like a lawyer and more like a part of a modern underground railroad system. My work involves the daily disruption of a state-sanctioned, human trafficking system, and the battling of Jim Crow who refuses to be evicted from the South.”
How will you impact others? This year I resolve to complete my first book and to boldly bring truth and knowledge where it is lacking as I continue to act as an ambassador for racial and social healing to a nation in need.
What should we look for in 2021? I have two priorities for 2021. One is a greater focus on the gender pay disparity and the marginalization of Black women. Despite the Equal Pay Act of 1963, women earn roughly $0.81 for every dollar earned by their male colleagues in the United States. Matters are worse in Louisiana where the widest gender pay gap in the nation exists, with women making just $0.69 for every dollar made by men. When intersectionality is concerned, the numbers are even more daunting. Black women are seen as the “antithesis of importance.” Too often, they are obscured or ignored by the larger society, including by many in the Black community. This is illustrated by their regular exclusion from significant historical narratives. They are also targets of gender-driven and race-driven microaggressions.
You can also expect a continuation of my use and development of restorative and transitional justice responses to current injustices and inequalities, particularly those that are systemic in nature. In its criminal justice system, America embraces a system of retributive justice. Experience has taught me that there are better ways to respond when one transgresses in society. America must also do the work of deliberately confronting systemic racism where it is codified. The non-unanimous jury law in Louisiana and Oregon was one example of this. Other priorities involve felony disenfranchisement laws, voting laws and practices and the thirteenth amendment to the United States Constitution, which currently permits slavery and involuntary servitude when a person is convicted of a crime (and many state constitutions contain this same language).
What are you proud of? What are your successes? Being recognized in HR 248 for achievements as a legal scholar and by the Innocence Project N.O. for scholarly contribution and advocacy relative to change in Louisiana’s non-unanimous jury law. Being selected for membership in the Fellows of the American Bar Foundation, an invitation only organization for only 1% of lawyers in a region and for membership in the National Black Lawyers-Top 100, an invitation only organization. Being an Urban League of Louisiana, 2019 Unanimous Jury Coalition Gala Honoree and also earning the National Civil Rights Planning Committee’s 2019 Civil Rights & Social Justice Award and the Girl Scouts Louisiana East’s 2019 Women of Distinction Award.
Allen-Bell has made many media appearances and participated in many local, national and international collaborations to discuss her scholarship and advocacy work, including La Presse (France), Le Nouvel Observateur (France), MSNBC (News Nation with Tamron Hall), NBC Nightly News and National Public Radio (All Things Considered). She has twice submitted written testimony to the United States Senate’s Judiciary Committee on the Constitution and she has been published in or quoted in a range of print media sources, such as the Washington Post, Russia Today TV, the New Yorker, the Huffington Post, and the Advocate.
What are you reading? I recently finished reading Vanguard by Martha S. Jones. I am currently reading Civil Rights Culture Wars: The Fight Over a Mississippi by Charles W. Eagles. I highly recommend both.
What’s on your playlist? I listen to Bishop Paul S. Morton Radio faithfully.
What are you watching? News, documentaries and murder mysteries when I do watch television.
Where to find you? Twitter @AngelaAllenBell