Professor Kim Taylor-Thompson was one of five faculty University-wide to receive a 2012 Martin Luther King Jr. Faculty Award on February 8. The student-nominated honor recognizes professors who exemplify King’s spirit through scholarship, research, and teaching, and also considers their positive impact in the classroom and the greater NYU community.

Kim Taylor-ThompsonThe student nomination of Taylor-Thompson singled out her passion for teaching, in which she examines the effect of race and gender on criminal behavior, particularly among juveniles: “It is all too easy to label a person who commits a crime a criminal and forget that they, too, are human, with a history and psychology that bear on their actions. Professor Taylor-Thompson reminds us that these people cannot be left to the system without careful consideration for why they did what they did and whether the punishment fits the crime. At the same time, there are no assumptions that people do not occasionally do bad things to which the juvenile justice system and the justice system in general must respond. I have found the even-handed approach with which our criminal law class has been conducted to be both an aid to learning the law and a lesson in compassion, understanding, and equal treatment.”

Accepting the award, Taylor-Thompson related an anecdote in which, as a young girl, she encountered King speaking to a circle of people at an outdoor jazz concert on the grounds of Jackie Robinson’s house. She boldly walked up to him, and he started asking her questions about herself.

“We all remember him for all the amazing things that we talked about here,” said Taylor-Thompson, “but I remember him as the man who focused on a 10-year-old and made her feel like she was at the top of the world that day. He taught through everything that he did—his life, his words, his loss of life—that there are principles that we have to stand for, there are things that we have to be committed to. Racial justice, social justice, economic justice. It is so unbelievably humbling to receive an award in his name.”

At the end of the ceremony, Taylor-Thompson read a tribute to the late Visiting Professor Derrick Bell written by Professor Anthony Thompson, who received a Martin Luther King Jr. Faculty Award in 2010. Thompson was unable to deliver his tribute in person because he was lecturing for a class that Bell had intended to teach.

Taylor-Thompson told the audience, which included Bell's wife, Janet Dewart Bell, that Bell had persuaded her years ago that she should teach. She then read Thompson’s words about Bell: “Derrick Bell was a man of action and vision. At his core, Derrick embodied social change—social change not simply for the sake of change, but social change to bring about a more just world. Derrick not only imagined a world truly free of racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism, but he devoted his life and his life’s work to achieving that goal. He took lawyers who spend their lives studying the realm of the probable, and dared us to imagine and strive for the realm of the improbable. He had the soul of a poet and the vision of a revolutionary.... He embodied the model of a patient, selfless, wise man of action, and the world is a much better place because of his lifelong dedication to the very goals that Dr. Martin Luther King had set out—to create a just future for all of us.”

Posted on February 17, 2012