by George E. Curry
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Barbara R. Arnwine does not back down from a fight. After the U.S. Supreme Court issued a series of rulings that limited the rights of employees to sue their employers for discrimination, she was a key player in a coalition that effectively reversed the rulings by persuading Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1991.
When many members of her own staff at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law were reluctant to file suits against federal agencies in connection with Hurricane Katrina, she persisted, eventually winning a couple of landmark verdicts.
And when so-called progressive forces urged her to be quiet about voter suppression in the wake of Barack Obama’s election as the nation’s first Black president, Arnwine was not deterred, issuing a famous “map of shame” identifying the states where such activity was underway.
The Lawyers’ Committee has announced that after 33 years –26 at the national level and seven years with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law of the Boston Bar Association – Arnwine will step down as president and executive director, effective June 30.
“She has steered the Lawyers’ Committee into a more active public policy role on a wide range of contemporary civil rights issues, including the response to Ferguson,” said Marc H. Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League. “She has been a valued colleague, and a faithful servant. We will miss her leadership.”
Ralph G. Neas, former chairman of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 organizations, said, “Barbara has been a tireless champion on behalf of civil rights for all Americans. Especially noteworthy were her leadership in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.”
Arnwine started thinking about retiring five years ago, but was urged to postpone her move until after the organization could get through a capital drive and observance of the group’s 50th anniversary.
“Then, of course, all the voter suppression stuff started to happen. When that happened, there was no way I could go,” she said.
Energized by yet another fight, the high-energy Arnwine was the point person in the fight against voter suppression.
Morial said, “To execute the election protection effort, she marshaled countless people hours, donated by volunteer lawyers, to staff a hotline, which served as an essential tool for the entire civil rights community.”
It was her “map of shame” that riveted the Black community. In 2011, her organization produced a color-coded map of the United States detailing efforts to suppress the Black and Brown vote.
Unlike many who were discouraged by the brazen political power grab, Arnwine said as a student of history, she had come to expect such shenanigans.
“I know that you only advance when you’re vigilant and you fight constantly,” she explained. “In fact, one of the theories I talk about is that some expect Black progress to be linear when, in fact, it zig-zags. We make tremendous advances and then there’s a backlash – people fight against it.
“Sometimes you’re zigging and zagging at the same time. You can have a President Obama elected, in part because of the Black vote, but at the same time have voter suppression.”
A larger problem, Arnwine said, is that America refuses to address racism in a meaningful way.
“If the goal is White supremacy and Black subordination, and you don’t have the structural mechanisms built into society to destroy that imperative, then the imperative is going to operate,” she said. “The laws are helpful in fighting that imperative, but we don’t have enough structures. People are scared to fight structural racism.”
When asked why, she quickly replied, “Because it’s real change.”
In one of her proudest moments, she brought about real change for victims of Hurricane Katrina.
“Before we filed that lawsuit, I had to fight people on my own staff,” she recalled. “Some refused to work on it and said it was far-fetched.”
John Britton, her legal director, didn’t share that view. And the Lawyers’ Committee successfully sued the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), contending the agency had a legal obligation to provide housing assistance to victims of natural disasters.
She was invited to address some of the victims at a small church in Gulfport, Miss.
“I will never forget it,” she recounted. “It was a speech I gave where so many people were openly crying. I talked about how God moves even in the midst of tragedy…It was a profound moment. I said to the people that as long were they were willing to fight, that we would be fighting with them; that we weren’t going to be disappearing when the cameras disappeared; that we weren’t going to disappear when the money disappeared; that we weren’t going to disappear when all the volunteers started leaving. I said the Lawyers’ Committee was going to commit itself for the long-range fight for that community and we did. That’s something I am very proud of. We ended up winning over $170 million in a lawsuit against HUD [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] that helped build housing for that region’s poor people who had been ignored.”
Last May, Arnwine was a finalist for president of the NAACP.
One NAACP board member told the NNPA News Service at the time, “All of our civil rights organizations have a problem with a woman serving as their chief, day-to-day spokesperson. Second, the clique that runs the board wants someone they can control, not someone like Barbara, who is talented and her own person.”
Arnwine said is not ready to announce what she calls her “encore career” will be. She is hosting a weekly radio program in Washington, D.C. that she hopes to expand. She plans to do more public speaking. And she hints that she might create a new organization devoted to developing new leadership.
Whatever she decides to do, chances are she’ll be fighting to improve the plight of African Americans and not backing down.