Prominent civil rights advocate helps Stanford Law School honor 50 years of Civil Rights Act, warns about continuing structural discrimination

Eva Jefferson Paterson delivering the keynote address at “The Civil Rights Act at 50.”

Stanford, Calif., February 3, 2014 – America is not yet a post-racial society and Americans must “look at the notion and the existence and vitality of structural racism” in order to move forward, suggested Eva Jefferson Paterson, President and Co-Founder of the Equal Justice Society, at a recent symposium at Stanford Law School celebrating the history and legacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Paterson, an attorney with a distinguished record of championing civil rights, gave the keynote address at the symposium entitled “The Civil Rights Act at 50.”

Welcoming Paterson to the stage, Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean of Stanford Law School M. Elizabeth Magill hailed Paterson’s decades of leadership and many accomplishments in tackling barriers to equality. Magill observed that the symposium provided an opportunity to reflect “about where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re going” fifty years after the passage of “perhaps one of the most important pieces of legislation of the 20th century.” Magill added that Paterson’s keynote address would be especially helpful in that reflection.

Paterson’s work on civil rights litigation and policy began in the 1970s. She served in a broad coalition that successfully challenged discriminatory practices in the San Francisco Fire Department and has been a leading spokesperson for statewide campaigns against the death penalty, juvenile incarceration and discrimination against members of the LGBT community. As a 20-year-old student leader, she debated Vice President Spiro Agnew on live television.

This experience allowed her to “think about a lot of ideas and connect the dots” in preparing her keynote remarks, Paterson said.

Paterson spoke of the history of violence, indignity and terror that permeated the United States before the Civil Rights Act and commended the courage of those who suffered in that climate. She noted that the violence and terror peaked during a relentless series of major events in 1963, including sit-ins and marches in Birmingham, Ala., the bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four children, the persistent refusal of Alabama Governor George Wallace to allow school desegregation, and the assassinations of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and President John F. Kennedy, who had called for federal civil rights legislation.

According to Paterson, these events helped propel the ultimate passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: “Americans, in their living rooms, saw the viciousness” of racial discrimination and its consequences.

During her address, Paterson also encouraged students to engage with their surroundings and push back against prejudicial ideas. She noted that a Stanford Law education is a serious credential and would position SLS students to be leaders in resisting discrimination.

“If you just let this stuff slide, in this environment, that’s not good,” Paterson cautioned.

And though she expressed concerns about efforts to weaken the Civil Rights Act, Paterson still affirmed the “forward momentum of the law” and encouraged its expansion to cover additional categories, such as age and disability. Paterson also warned the audience about negative depictions in popular culture of people of color, women and members of the LGBT community and discussed how cognition can fuel discrimination because people act upon unconscious biases.

Finally, she pressed Stanford Law students to pursue work that helps fight discrimination with their unique skillset, including litigation, scholarship, and becoming public intellectuals.

“Students, use your careers for good,” Paterson urged.

“The Civil Rights Act at 50” featured two dozen scholars and practitioners, including several members of Stanford Law School’s faculty. The symposium was co-sponsored by the Stanford Law Review and the Stanford Journal of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

About Stanford Law School

Stanford Law School is one of the nation’s leading institutions for legal scholarship and education. Its alumni are among the most influential decision makers in law, politics, business, and high technology. Faculty members argue before the Supreme Court, testify before Congress, produce outstanding legal scholarship and empirical analysis, and contribute regularly to the nation’s press as legal and policy experts. Stanford Law School has established a new model for legal education that provides rigorous interdisciplinary training, hands-on experience, global perspective, and focus on public service, spearheading a movement for change.