In 1978, the University of Tennessee was shocked by its Black Student Union, which named itself the “Afro-American Student Liberation Force” (AASLF).
The students protested against the university’s holdings in corporations that did business with apartheid South Africa and its racist laws that forced South Africans into poverty and homelessness and put a stranglehold on all aspects of Black life.
A young Mark Fancher bore witness to it all.
The students urged the Board of Trustees to divest from the segregated country. When they were told to be quiet, they kept talking. When they were told to not speak at a trustee meeting, they spoke anyway. They put themselves on the agenda. Their ejection from the meeting was followed by a demonstration involving police confrontations, arrests, and eventually, a school-led investigation into the Knoxville campus’s Black Cultural Center. It was an attempt to stymie their dissent.
The cascades of social revolution had come to the university’s doorsteps, and white school administrators and students were perplexed.
“They couldn’t understand why these Black students were out of control,” remembered Fancher, who was a student at the time.
His peers in the AASLF adopted a clenched black fist transposed over a rifle and a pencil as a symbol of their resistance. They were willing to risk their safety and independence for Black lives suffering abroad. It would take another 20 years of global anti-apartheid activism, notably led by political revolutionary Nelson Mandela, to end the oppressive regime.
Born in Alabama in 1958, and raised in Tennessee during the 1960s, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and the emergence of the Black Panther Party had already been imprinted on the mind of Fancher when he arrived on campus.
Living during an era of racial reckoning and civil uprisings left an impression on Fancher’s perspective and thinking on collective justice and liberation.
“We’re all taught to color within the lines and follow the rules,” he said. “Those rules were created to make sure we never change anything. The first objective is to break all rules.”
The arc of the Black liberation struggle bent toward change, but as Fancher’s journey attests, the work was far from finished. His college experiences, along with a devotion to his Christian faith, inspired Fancher to fight for social change.
The urgency to transform Black lives stayed with him during his brief stint as a newspaper reporter in Nashville, then at Rutgers’ law school, where he witnessed first-hand the plight of Camden’s largely Black and Latino population. His legal work put him on the frontlines of a city devastated by political scandal, the crack epidemic, and poverty. He also spent several years practicing general law in private practice, which allowed him to provide legal assistance to activists.
After his wife was offered a job with the University of Michigan Law School’s legal writing program, Fancher moved with her to Ann Arbor in 1996. He found work at the university’s law clinic and later joined the Sugar Law Center in Detroit, where he handled cases involving workers’ rights.
Although the law was a useful instrument to help people clear the hurdles of complex legal systems, Fancher realized early on in his legal career there were fundamental barriers.
“If you identify the institution as the problem and the need for them to be eliminated or radically restructured, the law is constructed in such a way that it is completely designed to preserve all those things,” he said. “As a lawyer, you’re limited to complying with the law itself.”
Fancher is now the staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan’s Racial Justice Project and has held the position for 18 years. His work addresses abusive police practices, racial profiling, racial discrimination in public employment, mass water shutoffs, racial harassment of students, use of indigenous peoples’ imagery and names as brands and mascots, and other matters affecting communities of color.
Two years after the police murder of George Floyd, Fancher says superficial policy changes won’t transform an institution rooted in racism.
“You have an institution, which grows out of slave patrols, the people whose job it was to monitor the movements of enslaved Black people and to track them down, to punish them physically,” he said. “And the successor entities in the form of police departments did pretty much the same thing all the way up to today… it’s a culture that exists within policing that’s been there for a long time.”
And as communities fight for justice, Fancher affirms his belief that lawyers don’t power movements; people do.
“I just have generally felt that the role of a lawyer is not to try and become a messiah,” he said. “All that we’re there to do is to respond to questions, and to try and problem solve when there are bumps along the way.”
After a legal career that saw Fancher encounter struggle and revolution from his early days as a college student to his position at the ACLU, he remains humble and grounded about his next life on the civic stage.
Mark Fancher, interviewed by Peter Blackmer and Oriana Yilma, May 17, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.