Symposium Honors Professor and Civil Rights Lawyer Lani Guinier ’74

Influential scholar and voting rights litigator Lani Guinier ’74 was the focus of a recent symposium that challenged scholars, practitioners, and activists to carry on her work.

Guinier is the Bennett Boskey Professor of Law, Emerita, at Harvard Law School, where she was the first woman of color appointed to a tenured professorship. Prior to Harvard, she was a tenured professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She worked in the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice during the Carter Administration before leaving in 1981 for the voting rights project at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. There, she joined the effort to renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which she called her “intellectual, professional, and spiritual cause.” As head of the project, she litigated and won voting rights cases throughout the South.

The Oct. 30, 2021 virtual symposium “Lift Every Voice: The Life and Legacy of Professor Lani Guinier ’74” highlighted Guinier’s importance to the Yale Law School community, the intersectional barriers she faced and shattered, and the paths of those shaped by the trail she blazed. According to its organizers, the symposium aimed to create a platform for participants to build on Guinier’s foundational contributions to educational justice, voting rights and social movements.

The event is one way Guinier is being honored by Yale Law School this year. She received the 2021 Award of Merit from the Yale Law School Association on Nov. 17, 2021. The Lillian Goldman Law Library is also displaying written works of her scholarship through January.

The symposium took its name from Guinier’s 2003 memoir Lift Every Voice: Turning a Civil Rights Setback into a New Vision of Social Justice. The book’s title references the iconic civil rights hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Its lyrics include the lines “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, / Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us; / Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, / Let us march on ’til victory is won.”

“If you can imagine any set of lines embodying Lani’s spirit, I think those are the ones, and she’s always taken this approach to heart,” said Dean and Sol & Lillian Goldman Professor of Law Heather K. Gerken in opening the event. “She’s never overlooked injustice, ignored past or present darkness and never, ever loses sight of the light.”

The symposium title is also the working title of a biography of Guinier being written by Senior Research Scholar in Law Sherrie L. Russell-Brown, one of the event’s organizers. Professor of Law Gerald Torres ’77, who co-authored the 2002 book The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy with Guinier and has taught with her, co-organized the event.

Guinier wrote her memoir after her 1993 nomination by President Bill Clinton ’73 to head the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice was withdrawn. Guinier, who had published many scholarly articles, used her greater visibility after the incident to bring her writing to wider audiences through books, columns, and op-eds. She addressed issues of race, gender, and democratic decision-making, seeking new ways of approaching questions like affirmative action while calling for candid public discourse on these topics.

Keynote speaker Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., called Guinier “easily the most intellectually powerful, towering figure I had ever met.”

Ifill said that we now live in a “Lani Guinier moment.” That moment calls us to marshal all efforts on behalf of the most marginalized people in our democracy, she said, and “to think about how we bring those voices into the center, how we create structures of power that can ensure that we create a system that is able to recognize the full dignity of every one of us.”

That sense of urgency was noted by other speakers, who also highlighted Guinier’s specific legacy as a teacher. Torres noted that Guinier “believed that launching ideas through her teaching — including her writing, which was part of her teaching — was the way in which we help build the future.”

Sterling Professor Emeritus of Law Guido Calabresi ’58 turned this idea into an assignment for participants: to give students what they need to become “the Lani Guiniers of the future.” And Gerken described how Guinier was her mentor when she was a new professor, adding “She changed my life.”

Additional Yale Law School faculty who participated in the symposium were Monica Bell ’09, Associate Professor of Law at Yale Law School and an Associate Professor of Sociology at Yale University; Nancy S. Marder ’87, Visiting Professor of Law at Yale Law School and Professor of Law at Chicago-Kent College of Law; Tracey Meares, Walton Hale Hamilton Professor and a Founding Director of the Justice Collaboratory; Douglas NeJaime, Anne Urowsky Professor of Law; Robert Post ’77, Sterling Professor of Law at Yale Law School; Judith Resnik, Arthur Liman Professor of Law and Founding Director of the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law; and Reva Siegel, Nicholas deB. Katzenbach Professor of Law.

Russell-Brown said she hoped attendees would be inspired by Guinier’s life in the same way that Guinier has said she was inspired to become a lawyer at the age of 12 by watching NAACP lawyer Constance Baker Motley walk James Meredith into the University of Mississippi.

“Professor Guinier’s voice is prescient. She is resilient and resolute, a truth-teller with the rare capacity to be both bold and beloved. But first and foremost, Professor Guinier is an inspiring teacher,” Russell-Brown said. “I hope that the symposium, much like Professor’s Guinier’s brilliant and impactful scholarship and teaching, is another vehicle to launch Professor Guinier’s ideas as a way in which to help build a better future.”

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