Chessa Runyan-Murr
Category: 2020 College Winner

Chessa Runyan-Murr

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

There is no shortage of influential African Americans throughout our country’s history. During the course of my life, I learned about the contributions of well-known leaders such as, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Maya Angelou, and Barak Obama. Even with the long list of passionate, influential, and inspirational voices throughout the continued fight for equity and justice for African American people in the United States, the most influential to me was Brooklyn Sawyers-Belk. I met Mrs. Sawyers-Belk through my family and maintained contact with her. Her daughter, Tressany, was my age and struggled with issues of race at her high school. Mrs. Sawyers- Belk spoke to me and my step-parents about the issues they experienced; I was impressed with how decisive and firm Mrs. Sawyers-Belk spoke about issues of inequity and racism and how passionate she seemed when standing up for her daughter’s rights, and unknowingly helped me to realize my own racial privilege as a Caucasian female.

I admired Mrs. Sawyers-Belk because of her personal story of perseverance throughout her life, her willingness to speak out against injustice, and her successes as an Assistant United States Attorney and as a Trial Attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice. Mrs. Sawyers-Belk was also an adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee- Knoxville and used this experience as an instructor to relate with me. She spoke to me about the hardships that faced not just African American women, but all women of all races, especially in historically male-dominated fields. She stressed the importance of women in these arenas to stick together and that when one rises, we all rise.

Through Mrs. Sawyers-Belk’s guidance and encouragement, I felt empowered to become more independent and found the self-confidence that I lacked as a relatively shy high school student. Mrs. Sawyers-Belk took the time to share with me advice on preparing for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). She also kindly offered me the opportunity to sit in on one of her law classes at the University of Tennessee. She has a unique ability to remain realistic and optimistic while leading and inspiring all who is in her presence. Because I saw her successes that came from years of hard work and fundamental determination, I knew that greatness was within me, as well because I realized that I possessed a similar drive to be successful in every aspect of my own life.

I feel fortunate that I have someone to admire like Mrs. Sawyers-Belk and through my future service in the field of law, I will strive to follow the example set for me by her. Following her lead will undoubtedly lead me along a path that will allow me to peacefully fight against injustice as Dr. King taught, refuse to accept the status quo as Ms. Parks showed, make my voice heard as modeled by Mr. Douglass, rise over hardships as Ms. Angelou courageously lived, and practice law with the discipline and deliberate nature shown by President Obama.