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Litigator Recalls Expulsion From High School for Organizing MLK Memorial

The campaign made the MLK event a success, but 10 students were suspended, and Tyler and two others were set for expulsion. Their offense: passing out leaflets without authorization.

By Jonathan Ringel | February 05, 2018

(Republished with permission of the Daily Report )

Michael Tyler thought about becoming a lawyer since the fourth grade, and as a senior in high school, he needed one.

Tyler was on the verge of being expelled from Cheyenne Central High School in Wyoming. It was early 1973, and as one of the few African-American students at the high school, he led an effort to hold an assembly to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who’d been assassinated less than five years earlier. The mostly white student council agreed, but the principal refused to make the event mandatory—unlike homecoming and Sadie Hawkins festivals, which were required.

Tyler and his classmates passed out leaflets urging students to ask their teachers to release students from their classes to attend the assembly. The campaign made the MLK event a success, but 10 students were suspended, and Tyler and two others were set for expulsion. Their offense: passing out leaflets without authorization.

Compared to today, when King’s birthday is a national holiday, the dispute over the school assembly “seems so extraordinarily innocuous,” recalled Tyler from his Atlanta office at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, where he is a litigation partner.

Even at 18, Tyler thought his First Amendment rights were being violated. He was aware of the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which held that a prohibition against wearing armbands in a public school violated the students’ freedom of speech protections.

But his parents—his father in the Air Force and his mother raising 11 children—didn’t have the money to hire a lawyer, and he couldn’t find anyone to represent him pro bono. “For them it was more trying than it was for me,” Tyler recalled, crediting his faith that he’d be OK to naivete.

Serving as his own advocate, Tyler was expelled. Fortunately, he already had enough credits to graduate, but he recalled another expelled student wasn’t allowed in other schools in Cheyenne, so he had to move in with relatives in Minnesota to finish high school.

Illustrating the significance of legal representation, Tyler said a teacher who taught African-American and women’s studies was inaccurately blamed for putting the students up to the demonstration. He lost his job, but he was reinstated and awarded back pay with backing from a teachers’ union lawyer.

Tyler said Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he applied, inquired about his expulsion but soon accepted him after learning he’d been expelled for trying to honor its most famous graduate.

Tyler went on to graduate from Harvard Law School in 1981, clerk for Judge James C. Hill of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit and enjoy a career at Kilpatrick.

Last month, he accepted an invitation to be the keynote speaker at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day march and rally in Cheyenne.

He quoted King, decried racism on display last summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, and cited statistics showing the overrepresentation of African-Americans in unemployment, infant mortality, incarceration and being victims of police violence.

“Paramount to Dr. King’s  fervent dream was the commitment that African-Americans gain full economic opportunity and to ‘not be confined to a basic mobility from a smaller ghetto to a larger one,’ ” Tyler said. “Today with 30 percent of all children of color in this country living below the poverty line, we know that the dream is far from being realized.”

“While we are inspired today by the passion and power of Dr. King’s exhortations of yesteryear, we must always be mindful of his fundamental imperative of love. He sought the beloved community where we would all live together in peace and justice and equality. We must embrace that love and cease the violence. No more senseless Newtown, Columbine, Pulse Nightclub or Las Vegas mass shootings. No more daily killings of our young people by our young people on the streets of the South Side of Chicago and countless other neighborhoods across the country. We need more gun control, but we also need more love.

“Yes, we all need more love for each other: black and white and yellow and red and brown. Gay and straight. Christians, Muslims and Jews. All of God’s children loving one another.

“We must embrace love and hold onto that powerful spiritual which inspired Dr. King’s generation and inspires us still today:  ‘We Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around.’ ”

Republished with permission of the Daily Report.)

Jonathan Ringel

Managing Editor

Daily Report

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