By Youmna Benmaymoun
“There are some people who think that lawyers are tricksters and that their role is merely to be gunslingers for the highest better; I am not one of those people. I really believe in the truth, I really believe in honesty and I really believe in sincerity and justice.”
Victor McTeer, 1969 graduate of Western Maryland College, that later became known as McDaniel College is now also an active member of its board of trustees. In his job as a lawyer in a determining period of history for African-Americans in the Unites States, McTeer participated actively until the late years of the civil rights movement and worked on cases that made a buzz across the country. During a visit to Budapest, he asked for an authentic ruin pub experience with the students of McDaniel College Campus, so they arranged a meeting in Szimpla Kert, where this interview took place. He spoke to our reporter Youmna Benmaymoun. The following is an edited version of their conversation.
What exactly bought you to Budapest?
First and foremost I came because of the fact that I am a part of the board of trustees at McDaniel College. I was also given the opportunity to come and see this facility and to meet people like you, students, and also faculty members of this area. At the same time, I have the chance to come and see a city that I have heard wonderful things about for years.
So I guess this was your first time here?
Oh, definitely. It is not my first time in central Europe though. I have been to the Czech Republic before and I visited Vienna but this is my first time in Hungary.
How do you like it?
Love it! Budapest is absolutely gorgeous. I had my first tour of the city and I have to admit that finding out that there was a Buda and a Pest that is separate surprised me. I enjoyed learning that the Danube runs down stream between these two sides of the city and having the chance to stay at the Four Seasons hotel has also been great. I am well treated and I am enjoying it. My wife and I get to travel internationally a whole lot and this has been a very fun visit so far.
What is your favorite part of the visit so far?
You all! I am enamored with the students that I have met and the diversity here. I think that McDaniel definitely made the right decision in supporting the linkage with this school that became now part of us. I really enjoyed meeting students from Iran, England and Russia (Points at the Russian student; giggles); it’s all been very good. The fact that you are all so youthful and at the beginning of your lives, helps me understand the fact that I am here and I am seeing myself in you all 40 years ago. It has been a very positive experience. And I smile, because I like it.
Can you tell me more about your life 40 years ago?
I was one of the first African-Americans to ever attend Western Maryland College and one of the first to graduate. There were two of us graduating the same day, my name starts with an M his name starts with an S and you would guess that I’d cross the stage first but no, we went together. We were both college athletes who had done well and we survived, we made it. I was 16 years old and I was a football player, an “American football” player, not a soccer player (giggles). Let me mention that I respect soccer, it is a great sport!
There were courses with many great trials that I personally managed to survive but now as you can imagine I am pleased to serve on the board of the college and I recognize what the college did for me. It gave me an opportunity to study even as a black man, in a all white university with the exception of myself and one another person. In the first year an opportunity was presented to me to study in the area of black history, minority contributions and human sacrifice. That motivated me to stay and face any challenges I would be facing. I could not fail; there was no way in the world I was walking away from it. Through all of the difficulties I still managed to make some lifelong friends and it is something that I am likely to forget. It was McDaniel College who inspired me to go to Mississippi and Mississippi made my life and career.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it to your talk earlier because I had a class. Would you please fill me in about what I missed?
Let me say first that I was deeply honored because Maria, Alyona, Sam and many other students kept asking me questions for two hours (giggles). I was so happy to see the engagement and I was impressed by the quality of their questions.
I was presented as having been involved in the civil rights movement and that was indeed a major part of my life. So as I am a trail lawyer who has done these kinds of cases, it is important for me that people understand exactly what I do. Particularly if they are hearing of cases of jury, they need to know why we have such rules and laws. We started our way in 1776 and we worked our way up to 1787, the Constitutional Convention. We then worked on into cases at the United States Supreme Court, indicating that black men have no rights that white men are bound to honor. Then we walked our way through the civil war and the economic implications and the end of slavery and we talked about the loss of life and property in the Deep South. Our aim was to work into reconstruction where black people for the first time in America got two things: the right to gain wealth from their own labor which is something they could not do in slavery and redemption. However, we sadly learned that while they were able to participate terrorists groups like the Ku Klux Klan invaded Mississippi. Many members of these groups were individuals who were formerly in charge. The whites or some of the whites did so in such a manner that black folks were no longer able to participate even after passage of laws to protect them. This went on for more than a 100 years until fortunately the laws were invigorated again through activism, civil rights activities and actions of whites across the country that saw things that happened in Selma, the movie, and were appalled to eventually speak up. And me at the time, I was a student at Western Maryland College who was so offended by what I experienced and what I saw and decided “Hell, I want to go South and be part of that movement”, which I did. Then ultimately I had to turn a full circle and although I was angry at the university and the racial situation, I knew I had to graduate to prove my point. Now look at me, I am a member of its board. How strange this life is! This is a position that I hold with great honor, remembering all of those people who helped me get to where I am, sitting here and talking to you.
Last words about yourself…
There is a difference between argument and persuasion, and my art is persuasion. So I am not going to argue with you about anything, I am going to laugh with you, I am going to joke with you and I am going to try to find what moves you, what you are honest about and what you are not and then I am going to try gently to move you, just plant a seed that I hope will bear good fruit and I think that that’s the essence of being forth right and honest. There are some people who think that lawyers are tricksters and that their role is merely to be gunslingers for the highest better; I am not one of those people. I really believe in the truth, I really believe in honesty and I really believe in sincerity and justice.