Fmr. Attorney General discusses civil rights and the lessons of GreensboroBy Afrique I. Kilimanjaro, Editor / March 8, 2019
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It was a homecoming fit for the nation’s former top law enforcement official as Greensboro community members; faculty and students at Elon School of Law welcomed Loretta Lynch, the 83rd U.S. Attorney General and the first African American woman to hold the position. Lynch recently spoke at Elon as part of the law school’s Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series sponsored by the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation.
Loretta Lynch was appointed U.S. Attorney General by President Barack Obama in 2015. Prior to that, she twice served as the head of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, where she earned a reputation for being a tough but fair prosecutor. Lynch earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and American literature and a Juris Doctor from Harvard.
The lecture audience featured several women — members of the Greensboro Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, who wore crimson as a sign of solidarity with their sorority sister. While a student at Harvard, Lynch was a charter member of the Xi Tau Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
During the lecture, Loretta Lynch said that her formative years as a toddler in Greensboro and growing up in Durham during the Civil Rights Movement, helped shape her thoughts about the law and its application. She said, “I carry the lessons of Greensboro with me throughout my life and my career. Those lessons taught me that the law can be used to divide and repress or to uplift and protect.” She added that “our most deeply held values must also inform our laws and the most important lesson of all is when ordinary people come together to fight injustice, they can change the world.” Touching on the 1960’s lunch counter sit-ins of Greensboro as a capstone event that changed the world, Lynch said, “the actions of four A&T freshmen by simply sitting at a lunch counter helped to save the soul of the nation” and brought us closer to equality and justice.
The former attorney general, who spent years prosecuting mobsters, fighting terrorism, financial fraud and cyber crimes, spoke fondly of her father, Rev. Lorenzo Lynch, who attended the Elon Law lecture. As the pastor of Greensboro’s Providence Baptist Church during the 1960’s, Rev. Lynch was one of two faith leaders to open his church as a place for young sit-in participants to meet and organize.
“He carried me as a toddler on his shoulders to those meetings… He wanted me to see that history and change was made by people just like me, ordinary people,” explained Lynch.
Her mother, Lorene Lynch, worked as a school librarian in the Greensboro City School system. Loretta Lynch said that her mother “was done with using segregated facilities because they did not represent the America, she knew was possible.” It was time to demand equality. “She took her dignity in her hands and never wavered,” said Loretta Lynch.
The Lynch family moved from Greensboro to Durham in 1965, where Rev. Lynch became pastor of White Rock Baptist Church.
Lynch said our society has made progress with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, but since the passage of these laws, several states like North Carolina have been attempting to undo civil rights progress by passing laws which adversely affect voting rights and the rights of people specifically in the LGBTQ community. She referenced North Carolina’s gerrymandered voting districts which the federal courts ruled as unconstitutional. One such ruling stated that N.C.’s redistricting efforts unlawfully restricted African American access to the ballot box and targeted Black voters “with almost surgical precision.”
“Despite our different views and backgrounds, I think we can all agree that the right to vote; the right to walk into the ballot box and express your opinion is the cornerstone of our democracy. This is how we participate in civic life. It’s how we make our fundamental values a part of the fabric of our lives,” explained Lynch. “Free and fair elections are an aspirational touchtone for countries around the world and it’s still the envy of the world.”
North Carolina once again took center stage with the legislature’s passage of HB 2, a bathroom bill which forced transgender people to use public restroom facilities based on their gender by birth. Opponents of HB 2 (and its subsequent replacement bills) state that this legislation discriminates against transgendered people by violating the equal protection clause under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“The values that have informed our laws are some of the greatest American values: That all are created equal, everyone is entitled to participate fully and freely in American life and just as importantly, that all deserve protection of the law. I’ve carried these values throughout my career in the law,” reiterated Lynch.
She added, “People continue think that America’s best days are behind us and want to run back to when American second-class citizenship was the law of the land. We have to get people back to the ballot box.” Lynch suggested that election day should be a national holiday and that voters should be permitted to take time off from work to vote.
As the issue of voter ID continues through U.S. courts, Lynch said, “I will watch with great interest as North Carolina leads the way in the ongoing legal saga here over the recent constitutional amendment mandating voter ID and the issue that is raised about the very legitimacy of our state legislature. That’s what happens when you turn things inside out, you have unintended consequences.”
To learn more about Elon Law School and its Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series, visit law.elon.edu.