Legal Divas of Color: 10 Ladies Rise in Alabama

Legal Divas of Color: 10 Ladies Rise in Alabama

Photo Credit: Andre WagnerEvery Black History Month, I have done a series on this blog on the topic of “Legal Divas of Color”. The intent is to highlight African-American women who are doing great things in the legal field. Many serve as an inspiration to me to keep fighting the good fight and pushing the boundaries as far as they can go. It is also a reminder that the term “diva” is not a pejorative term; a diva is a woman who is strong, self-assured, and commands her worth.

When one thinks of the state of Alabama, sadly what comes to mind is the long history of racism and segregation. One thinks of the work of Dr. Martin Luther King; the actions of brutal police officers; and the last state in the country to overturn miscegenation laws as required by the Supreme Court.

However, Election Day 2016 showed that times are slowly changing in this southern state. 10 female attorneys of color rose to the highest positions that one can hold in the legal field in Jefferson County. The newly elected District Attorney is Lynneice Washington; and nine women of color were elected judges in Jefferson County. The nine new judges are Javan Patton, Debra Bennett Winston, Shera Craig Grant, Nakita “Niki” Perryman Blocton, Tamara Harris Johnson, Elisabeth French, Agnes Chappell, Brendette Brown Green and Annetta Verin.

District Attorney Lynneice Washington ran on a progressive platform of reforming/reducing the use of the death penalty, creating alternatives to incarceration for low level offenders, and creating a citizens-police advisory board. In doing so, she defeated the incumbent who had been appointed to the position after the retirement of his successor.

Photo Credit: Lynneice Washington campaign

These wins are even more significant when you look at the fact that the current administration carried Alabama, and defeated Hillary Clinton resoundingly.

In this day and age, there seems to be a resurgence of the “tough on crime” rhetoric coming from the Justice Department and the White House. These policies have proven to be ineffective, leading to mass incarceration and no rehabilitation to be found in the criminal justice system. Now, there is a rise of a more progressive approach to criminal justice, which has shown to be effective in reducing recidivism and integrating people back into their communities. This is why it is more important than ever to elect progressive district attorneys and judges so that the whole defendant is being considered, as well as what is right for the victim, and the community at large. Local politics have become more critical in criminal justice than national policy. Groups such as the ACLU, and activists such as Shaun King are mounting voter education campaigns on this critical issue.

The wave of power seen in Jefferson County, Alabama is absolutely historic. I look upon these wins as hope for the future!

Congratulations ladies for being Legal Divas of Color.

Please see the bios of the nine judges here as well as a great piece detailing the District Attorney Lynneice Washington’s plans for the future of her county.

Legal Divas of Color: Mildred Loving

Legal Divas of Color: Mildred Loving

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Mildred and Richard Loving in 1967 courtesy of Francis Miller/The Life Picture Collection/Getty

Usually, my Legal Divas of Color series features female attorneys that have been trailblazers in our world. But after seeing the Oscar nominated movie Loving  [finally], I was moved to switch gears in my final Legal Diva of Color for Black History Month 2017.

Mildred Loving was a woman of color who married the love of her life.

Small problem: he was white, and it was the 50’s in America. This was at a time in history when there were laws for bidding interracial marriage (called miscegenation laws). The couple lived in Virginia, but went to Washington DC where interracial marriage was legal to get married. After being arrested (snatched out of their beds in the middle of the night while she was far along in her pregnancy with their first child), a long legal battle ensued. The Lovings pled guilty to violating the “Racial Integrity Act“, with the condition that they do not live in the state of Virginia for 25 years.  The Lovings were close to their extended family; the forced separation began to take a toll. After urging from a family member, Mildred Loving wrote a letter to then Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He was not able to help her, but he referred her to the American Civil Liberties Union. The legal battle continued, winding its way up to the Supreme Court of the United States. Finally, they received relief with the ability to live as man and wife in 1967.

The tragic ending of the story is that Richard Loving passed away seven years after they won their battle — killed by a drunk driver. Mildred never remarried, and lived in the house that he built for her until the day she passed away. When interviewed before she passed away in 2008, she said “I miss Richard. He took care of me”.

That was one of many times I was brought to tears during the course of the movie. It was very much a love story as well as a legal battle. The Lovings overcame so much just to be together but they did not get their “forever” story in this life.

When I heard that quote, I think back to this weekend where I was struggling with a really bad cold. As I was laying down mouth breathing, my husband calls to me from the next room “did you use Vicks vapor rub?” I couldn’t give much of an answer because I felt so terrible. He came in, rubbed the afflicted areas, gave me a kiss, and left the room to continue what he was doing. I think of those small tender moments in the context of love, and what Mildred was missing for those years after her Richard passed away.

The other emotional part of the movie for me was the involvement of the ACLU in fighting for this couple and all couples to follow be able to marry who they love. The Loving case is part of the basis used to obtain the rights for gays to marry in America. This case has so many ripples; if the ACLU did not take on the battle, it would be a very different story. My husband and I, as well of hundreds of thousands of other couples since then, would not be able to legally be with who they love.

I am so proud to be a part of this organization. When asked during my interview why I wanted to come to the ACLU, I said quite simply “Loving vs. Virginia. If it was not for the ACLU, I would not be married to the love of my life.”

As an interesting footnote, most states struck down their miscegenation laws immediately after the Loving ruling. Alabama, however, was the last to do so in 2000. 40% of the population voted to keep this law, even though it was unconstitutional.

Although she is an unlikely heroine, Mildred Loving is one nonetheless. Mildred Loving, thank you for being a Legal Diva of color, paving the way for people to marry who they love  regardless of race or gender.

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Iconic Life Magazine photo of the couple, taken by Grey Villet 

See the original news report below:

Legal Divas of Color: Jasmine Twitty

Legal Divas of Color: Jasmine Twitty

The RLD Black History Month segment continues with our Legal Divas of Color.  Black history is always evolving, with people of color breaking barriers and challenging stereotypes.

Often when folks think of millennials, they think of a spoiled generation who lives at home for as long as they can.

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Jasmine Twitty challenged that perception by becoming the youngest judge in South Carolina history in August of 2015. At the age of 25, she has reached a goal that, as many can attest, others have spent their lives pursuing with no success.

Judge Twitty is a Greenville, South Carolina native.  She graduated from the College of Charleston with a degree in Political Science.  Before ascending to the bench, she was a court clerk in Greenville’s 24 hour bond court.  She worked nights and weekends, learning about the court system.  In 2011, she decided that becoming a municipal judge was the path for her. As she put it in an interview with Jenna Regan  of the blog  “Smart Girls”, she became intentional about her goal.

She sought a judicial appointment in the town of Easley, South Carolina.  In South Carolina, the city council is the body that appoints judges for the municipal court.  It is not required that one be a lawyer, or a resident of the town in which they seek appointment.  After going through the interview process (which can be quite intense), she finally attained her goal in 2015. As a non lawyer, Judge Twitty had to complete a training program, and pass a certification exam.  She will have to take continuing education courses, and be re-certified every eight years.

See the interview Judge Twitty gave to local television station WSPA a few months after her appointment.

At the end of the day, you have to go for opportunities, and not self deselect.  So many times women, especially women of color, put extra requirements on themselves in addition to the qualifications they already have. “I’ll be ready to apply x position after I do xyz“.  She may be overqualified, and yet she is still doubting herself. Others fall into the trap of “I need to wait my turn”.  Judge Twitty is the perfect example — if you want it, go for it!

Best of luck to you Judge Twitty, and thank you for being  a Legal Diva of Color!

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Legal Divas of Color: Ada Louis Sipuel

Legal Divas of Color: Ada Louis Sipuel

Hello RLD Family,

Well, it’s that time of the year again! Every year during Black History Month, I do a series entitled “Legal Divas of Color”. The purpose of the series is to highlight the accomplishments of female attorneys of color — women who have been trailblazers in their own right in the legal community. 


Many of you have heard of the landmark education discrimination case “Brown v. The Board of Education“. However, before the Brown case, there was Ada Louis Sipuel. Ms. Sipuel was born in Oklahoma in 1924. She endured much during her childhood due to growing up during the height of the Jim Crow era. Her house was burned; her father, who was a pastor, was jailed unjustly. Ms. Sipuel lived in a time where lynchings of African-Americans were the norm. All of these experiences gave her a burning desire to see justice served, and to become a lawyer. However, the law school in Oklahoma did not allow students of color. Students who wanted to pursue a law degree were forced to go out of state, most notably to Howard University School of Law. The concept of “separate but equal” meant that segregated schools were the norm. Of course, although equal on paper, the schools were not equal in reality. White schools had better resources, leading to a wider array of opportunities for graduates. In 1946, Ms. Sipuel applied to the law school at the University of Oklahoma. The law school president  reviewed her transcript, and indicated that there was no academic reason for her not to be accepted — only the color of her skin.  

With this information in hand, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund took on her case. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court. Thurgood Marshall, who later became a Supreme Court justice [the first African-American to do so] argued masterfully as to why these “separate but equal” laws were unjust. The court agreed;  Ms. Sipuel was allowed to enroll at the University of Oklahoma law school. The state of Oklahoma tried to get around this ruling by hastily building another school just for her but that plan failed. She then finally entered the law school with white students in 1949. Of course, knowing the time period, this was a difficult road for her. She was forced to sit at the back of the class with on the bench with a sign “Coloreds Only”.  Despite the obstacles, she persevered and graduated in 1952.

She decided to use her law degree as a teacher after briefly practicing law. She became a faculty member at the all Black Langston University, rising to become the chair of the Department of Social Sciences. Her alma mater finally righted the past wrongs by appointing her to the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma in 1992. Once segregated against, she then was able to run the school that had treated her unfairly.

Ms. Sipuel passed away in 1995. Hear more of her intriguing story as told by her son Bruce. 

Thank you Ada Louis Sipuel for being Legal Diva of Color, paving the way for millions of African-Americans to be able to attain legal degrees. I would not be here without your sacrifice.

Ada Sipuel signing the register of attorneys, 1952 Barney Hillerman Collection

Legal Divas of Color: Jewel Lafontant- Mankarious

Legal Divas of Color: Jewel Lafontant- Mankarious

Every February, in honor of Black History Month, I feature a series called “Legal Divas of Color“. These are African-American female attorneys who blazed the trail on which I am honored to follow, as well as acknowledging those who are doing big things today. Feel free to browse past features and share your comments!

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This year’s first Legal Diva of Color is Jewel Lafontant- Mankarious.

Ms. Lafontant- Mankarious was born April 22, 1928 in Chicago, IL. It was as if her path was predetermined; her father Francis Stafford was an attorney who practiced before the United States Supreme Court, and was a co-founder of the National Bar Association, which is a voluntary bar association for African-Americans. In 1946, Ms. Lafontant- Mankarious became the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Chicago Law School.

In the early years of her practice, she partnered with her husband in a family law firm, and also worked at the Chicago Legal Aid Society. However her work did not go unnoticed. She made history again when she was appointed as an Assistant US Attorney in the Northern District of Illinois by President Eisenhower in 1955 — the first African American in that office. She held that post until 1958, when she returned to private practice. 1963 brought Ms. Lafontant- Mankarious another historic moment — being the first African American woman to argue a case before the US Supreme Court. The case she argued set the groundwork for Miranda vs. Arizona (the case we get our Miranda rights from). President Nixon tapped her talents to be the first female and the first African American Deputy Solicitor General in 1973, a post she held until 1975. While she returned to private practice, her public service continued under President Bush, serving as Ambassador at large and US coordinator for refugee affairs from 1989-1993. She practiced law until her death from breast cancer in 1997. Hear an interview with her here.

Thank you Jewel Lafontant- Mankarious for being a Legal Diva of Color, blazing the trail for African American prosecutors on both the state and federal level!

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