by Lindsey Galloway '07
There’s a first time for everything. No one knows that better than lawyer Barbara Arnwine ’73. She is the first African-American woman to serve as executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a non-profit, non-partisan legal organization dedicated to protecting civil rights. In 1995, she organized the first national African-American Women and the Law Conference. She was also the first in her family to attend college. Achieving that feat, however, came earlier than she anticipated.
As a self-starting 11th grader, Arnwine decided to apply to a summer Upward Bound program hosted at Scripps. But by some twist of fate, instead of sending in the summer application form, Arnwine ended up sending in a regular Scripps admission form. Though the admissions committee wasn’t in the habit of accepting 11th graders, Arnwine’s application was so impressive (she studied Swahili and read Plato’s Republic on her own), the committee invited her to enroll at Scripps during the fall. To this day, Arnwine is without a high school diploma. Armed with her Scripps education, she has never missed it.
Being offered early admission to Scripps was just the first of many unexpected, but fortunate, turns in Arnwine’s life. Even her decision to become a lawyer was one she made at the last minute. During September of her senior year, nearly done with her American studies major, she realized she was interested in law. “I ran to sign up to take the LSAT on the last day you could take it in October,” Arnwine recalled.
She was one of only five Scripps students that year to take the LSAT, and the only one to enter directly into law school after graduating. Coming from a Scripps humanities foundation, Arnwine had to adjust her thought process in law school. “Humanities thinking is broad and requires applying the lessons of the world to your situation,” said Arnwine. “In law, you must apply the strict legal analysis. It’s a different contouring of knowledge. I think law suffers somewhat from having such a narrow focus.”
Since graduating from Duke Law School, Arnwine has been a tireless advocate for civil rights. The Lawyers’ Committee has recently dealt with some high profile cases, including a lawsuit filed against FEMA for attempting to eject Katrina survivors out of temporary hotel housing without first establishing private housing. “We’re the reason why those families still have a place to live,” said Arnwine.
She has overseen many other tough cases as well. The Lawyers’ Committee recently settled a case involving an African-American family who had planned a family reunion at a resort in South Carolina. When the owners of the resort learned the family was black and there were going to be interracial couples in attendance, they closed the pool. During the time that the family was there, the owners of the resort did open the pool and let white guests use it. “This case was so psychically harmful to the family,” said Arnwine. “We were able to settle with damages awarded to the family. We also try and make sure this never happens again.”
“The work I do is all very complex and difficult. Many people say ‘Racial discrimination doesn’t exist,’ or ‘It’s all in the past.’ It’s very hard overcoming that conventional wisdom, people’s perceptions and their denials,” said Arnwine. “But at the same time, I get to work with talented lawyers who are at their prime ensuring the constitution is upheld. It’s fun to work with good law firms that deliver a lot of pro bono services. I see the worst and best side of human nature in the work that we do.”
According to Arnwine, protecting civil rights is not just her job, but the responsibility of every citizen.” The U.S. cannot be a true country until it really faces up to the challenge of providing equal opportunity for all,” said Arnwine. “And, of course, that’s easier said than done. It requires constant vigilance and constant commitment. It requires all of us to really be vocal about the need to keep inclusion foremost in our agenda.”