Harvard Civil Rights Professor Lani Guinier Passes Away At 71

Harvard Civil Rights Professor Lani Guinier Passes Away At 71

Lani Guinier

Harvard law professor Lani Guinier speaks to reporters before her remarks at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Breakfast in Boston, Monday, Jan. 17, 2005, where she was the keynote speaker. (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds)

Civil rights attorney and scholar Lani Guinier, the first Black woman to receive tenure as a professor at Harvard University’s Law School, died on Friday, Jan. 7. She was 71.

Guinier died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease at an assisted-living facility in Cambridge, Massachusetts after a long battle with the illness, according to a memoriam article on Harvard’s website.

Her death was confirmed to several media outlets by her cousin Sherrie Russell-Brown, who said Guinier was “surrounded by family and friends” when she died peacefully.

Guinier’s only son with husband Nolan Bowie also confirmed his mother’s death when he expressed gratitude for the outpouring of condolences and tributes on Twitter.

“I miss my mom so much. But I am overwhelmed with joy to hear how many others she inspired, mentored, and organized to fight for a genuinely just democracy. May we all strive to be as successful as she was,” tweeted Nikolas Bowie, who is also a professor at Harvard Law.

Before her groundbreaking tenure appointment at Harvard in 1998, Guinier had already made history. She became the first Black woman to be nominated for the post of U.S. assistant attorney general for civil rights. She was 43 at the time and teaching at the University of Pennsylvania Law School when President Bill Clinton nominated her in 1993.

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Clinton, who was a year ahead of Guinier at Yale Law School, withdrew the nomination after the brilliant litigator came under fire for her views on voting rights by conservative Republicans. Some even dubbed her the “quota queen.”

Guinier insisted she was not anti-democratic or set on quotas, but rather highly critical of the “one person, one vote” system because she felt it did not offer Black people and other disenfranchised groups sufficient voting power.

In 1991, she called for Black political candidates to “not just physically Black” but to have a “cultural and psychological view of group solidarity,” The Washington Post reported.

It was a point one of her colleagues further underscored after her death. “Her work on voting and democracy – the work that would bring so much controversy – was all about the fragility of democratic systems,” said Kenneth Mack, the Lawrence D. Biele Professor of Law and affiliate professor of history at Harvard.

“African American communities and their continuing struggles to participate, were the ‘miner’s canary,’ to use a term she later coined with Gerald Torres — evidence of largely unseen problems with the ability of many groups to engage with the democratic process,” Mack continued.

Guinier herself has spoken about the infamous nomination withdrawal and authored a book about the experience entitled, “Lift Every Voice: Turning a Civil Rights Setback into a New Vision of Social Justice.” She noted the experience made her less wary of the court of public opinion.

“The irony is that it never occurred to me I would be walking into a public controversy when Clinton offered me the nomination,” Guinier told the Harvard Law Bulletin. “After that grueling experience, I was less worried about how I would fare if I were at the center of a public controversy.” 

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The Bennett Boskey Professor of Law emerita, Guinier also coined the term “confirmative action” – which she argued rejected purely race-based admissions preferences in favor of establishing “policies that link all admission practices to the broad purposes and public character of higher education in a multiracial democracy.”

Born Carol Lani Guinier to Ewart and Eugenia Guinier in New York in 1950, Guinier grew up and followed in both of her parents’ footsteps. Her mother was a civil rights activist and her father an attorney and scholar.

Lani Guinier said she knew she wanted to be a civil rights attorney since she was 12 and saw NAACP Attorney Constance Baker Motley escort James Meredith while he was fighting to integrate the University of Mississippi in 1962, according to the New York Times.

Guinier pursued that dream by earning her B.A. from Radcliffe College in 1971 and her J.D. degree from Yale Law School in 1974. She was also the recipient of 10 honorary degrees, including from Spelman College, Smith College and the University of the District of Columbia.

In addition to her numerous accolades for her academic and legal vigor, Guinier spent years working with, then leading the Voting Rights Project of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund – during which time she was instrumental in getting key provisions of the 1982 update to the Voting Rights Act passed.

Among those who paid tribute to Guinier on social media were NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill and current Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke – both of whom are Black women.

“A loss that means more to me than words can say. Civil rights atty, professor, my mentor, member of our @NAACP_LDF family. A mother of the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act. A scholar of uncompromising brilliance. Rest In Peace and Power, dear Lani,” Ifill wrote.

“Lani Guinier was one of the nation’s most dedicated civil rights lawyers and brightest scholars — she cared deeply about political representation and ensuring that all communities have voice in our democracy. We’ve lost a giant,” Clarke tweeted.