WASHINGTON — Danielle R. Holley-Walker, the new dean of the Howard University School of Law in the nation’s capital, says the school will build on its heritage of fighting for civil rights by broadening its pioneering work in social reforms.
She takes charge of one of the oldest historically black university law schools in the country as the civil rights era receives renewed attention this week because of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Howard figured prominently in the battles over civil rights. Its former dean, legal scholar Charles Hamilton Houston, and his student Thurgood Marshall, who went on to become a towering figure on the Supreme Court, led the litigation that destroyed the legal case for segregation.
That Supreme Court ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case helped to inspire civil rights protests that led President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, which outlawed numerous forms of discrimination.
While the school, according to its website, opened in 1869 with a class of just six students who had to meet at night at their professors’ homes, it evolved into “the embodiment of legal activism. It emerged as a ‘clinic’ on justice and injustice in America, as well as a clearinghouse for information on the civil rights struggle.”
Holley-Walker said she hoped that under her stewardship Howard would build on its traditions and embark on “a new era, and that to me includes everything from issues of income inequality to housing, intellectual property issues . . . to think about it in terms of environmental justice, and also to think about it in terms of leadership. What’s really new for the 21st century is to think about social justice in a variety of ways, everything from criminal law . . . (to) having diversity in the boardroom.”
Holley-Walker, who holds an undergraduate degree from Yale and a law degree from Harvard, became the law school’s new dean in June after a stint as a professor and an associate dean at the University of South Carolina Law School. She’s been a clerk to a federal judge, a civil litigator and an author of legal articles.
“I feel that lawyering is . . . such a noble profession that you really need to have a calling for it,” she said. “You need to have a strong sense of purpose when you enter the profession.”
Law schools give students knowledge about the law, Holley-Walker said, but they also should be a place where students find issues they care about passionately, such as cleaner oceans, safer streets or more diversity in corporate leadership.
“Through the platform of being a lawyer you can really go about changing those things,” she said. “Charles Houston and Thurgood Marshall and others, they demonstrated this fully, and it was a very powerful influence for me.”
Howard’s law school opened to provide legal training for African-Americans, who’d been excluded from the profession. Houston, dean from 1930-35, believed in the idea of the lawyer as social engineer. He said that meant a highly skilled person who understood the Constitution and knew how to use it “in the solving of problems of local communities and in bettering conditions of the underprivileged citizens.”
Holley-Walker said Howard’s law students were “going to work on transforming their communities and transforming their workplaces in the public and private sector. These are the next generation of leaders, and that excites me about Howard because I know that is a strong tradition of the law school.”
She found her own purpose in her second year of law school when she took a class called the Civil Rights Project. As she wrote about a then-new affirmative action plan in Texas, where the top 10 percent of each high school’s students are admitted to the University of Texas, “I knew this was my work,” she said. “I was going to work on educational equity issues.”
“I hope for that moment for every student,” Holley-Walker said, “where they one day take a class, meet a professor, meet a lawyer in a mentoring project, and say, ‘Now I know why I’m doing this, what my life’s work really is.’ ”
Many challenges remain for equity in education, she said. Schools generally aren’t becoming less segregated.
“All the empirical evidence says we’re going in the wrong direction for quite a long time, that the period of most inclusion and opportunity really peaked in the late ’80s,” she said. “Some would say it really began to decline in 1991, when the Supreme Court decided a trilogy of cases that made it more difficult for school districts to have plans that considered race as a part of student assignments.”
Some of the solution might lie in solving the problem of racially segregated patterns of housing, Holley-Walker added. But that hasn’t been done, either. The search for solutions is under way at the civil rights clinic at Howard, the law school’s new dean said.
“You can have students and professors think together,” she said, “about creative ways in which we can put opportunity, racial inclusion _ those kinds of issues _ back on the table.”