A founder of the activist group Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, lawyer Michael Coard bird-dogged the President's House commemoration of George Washington's slaves starting in 2002. After eight years of controversy and debate, it opened in December. After one of the evening classes he teaches at Temple University, Coard, 52, spoke last week with Inquirer reporter Stephan Salisbury about what's on his agenda these days.
Question: The President's House memorial has finally opened, and the lives of nine enslaved Africans held by President Washington in Philadelphia are commemorated there. Are you satisfied with the results?
Coard: It's a giant first step, but the horror of slavery needs to be more graphic. The follow-up would be to show, in uncompromising terms, the horror of slavery because we don't want people thinking that slavery was working at a fancy White House for a fancy president and that was as bad as it got. No — slavery was much worse. We're happy with what we have at the President's House, but we would hope for more, and we are going to try and get more.
Q: What's up for ATAC now? Is there a role for the organization at this point?
Coard: Absolutely. We're not a one-trick pony. What we're working on now involves the Afrocentric curriculum for the Philadelphia School District that Dr. Ed Robinson wrote in 2005 and that was supposed to be infused into the regular course of study — like math, like reading, writing, arithmetic. But something happened after Paul Vallas left, and now we're trying to get Dr. Arlene Ackerman to finish what Vallas started.
Q: You're a busy guy. You've also got a full criminal-law practice, don't you?
Coard: I certainly do, and I've jokingly stated that on my new business cards I'm going to put, "So much crime, so little time." I'm focusing now on murder, primarily capital murder cases. One, because of time constraints, and two, because of my unwavering opposition to state-sanctioned murder, a.k.a. capital punishment.
Q: Are there any civil rights-related cases you're working on?
Coard: Yes. There's a young lady, Tiana Drummond-Phiri, in a Delaware County school where there was a mini race riot, and despite the fact that she's an honor student and perfect attendance and planning to go to law school, she was the only one charged, the only one arrested, the only one convicted. She's now a student at Temple University, but her plans for law school might have been dashed. I filed an appeal with the Pennsylvania Superior Court.
In addition, there's Sgt. Robert Ralston — that's the Philadelphia police officer who shot himself and claimed a black in West Philly did it. In May, it'll be the one-year anniversary of that. ATAC will be filing a private criminal complaint seeking prosecution of this cop for lying about being shot and blaming a black person for doing it. The D.A.'s Office has not filed criminal charges.
Q: Life isn't all death-penalty cases. Weren't you just walking back from a hip-hop class?
Coard: I teach an undergraduate hip-hop course for Temple University, and I also volunteer doing a community hip-hop course. It's hip-hop because I love the creative use of the English language. It's hip-hop because I love poetry. It's hip-hop because I love black culture. I was a fan early on of the spoken-word artistry of Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets. And one day, by accident, I just happened to hear a song by a group that was described as the Black Panthers of rap. Later on, I found out that was Public Enemy. The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, Harlem Renaissance, Nikki Giovanni brought me to Chuck D, and Chuck D brought me to rap and hip-hop.
Q: Where is baseball in this?
Coard: I have to be honest, I played it because I lived in North Philly at 20th and York, near the old Connie Mack Stadium. So everybody in the neighborhood was into the Phillies. We all played. I played for a Little League team called Connie Mack, and we were like the local dynasty. It was fun, and then I began to find out about Negro League baseball and aspired to play professional baseball. In fact, I'm no longer embarrassed to admit that I went to three Phillies tryout camps. But I realized this baseball thing was probably not going to pan out.
Q: Where do you think activism would be most effective now?
Coard: For me, the answer is education. The activism should be directed toward getting young black folks into colleges and universities. Electoral politics? Important. We need activism there. The employment arena? Important. We need activists there. But the key to the success of the black man, the black woman, and the black child is education. From there we can get and do everything.