Follow the Leaders
How two families continue the legacy of a fierce commitment to civil rights and the law
Patricia and John D. Due Jr. with daughters, standing left to right, Johnita, Lydia, and Tananarive.
If family vacations revolve around annual NAACP conventions, the odds are fairly high that the a child will end up in a career linked to civil rights and the law. That’s precisely what happened to Johnita Due, senior counsel and Diversity Council chair for Cable News Network, Inc. (CNN). As young children, she and her sisters, Lydia and Tananarive, spent their summer vacations with their parents at civil rights events. As preteens, they were actively involved in local non-partisan voter registration and education campaigns. “We were calling people on the phone [and] encouraging them to vote,” Due recalls. “We were in the car with a megaphone driving through the black community.” The sisters were involved in the civil rights movement in ways that most adults can’t lay claim to: They participated in demonstrations and commemorated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a family well before it was made a national holiday.
With two parents who have spent the better part of their lives furthering the cause of civil rights, it may have been inevitable that Johnita, Lydia, and Tananarive would choose to devote their own careers to the cause. Their father, John D. Due Jr., worked as a civil rights attorney defending protestors, including Dr. King, and litigating the longest desegregation case in the state of Florida. Their mother, Patricia Stephens Due, is a longtime activist and author who, among other notable experiences, was part of the nation’s first jail-in in 1960, spending 49 days in jail following an arrest for sitting at a Woolworth lunch counter in Tallahassee.
“My sisters and I realize that our upbringing was unique because of our parents’ experiences,” Due says. “We’ve all been shaped by those experiences, and they are such a part of who we are. We really learned by example that one person can make a difference and that it’s your responsibility to give back to the community and do what you can…. That was ingrained in all of us growing up. We’ve all chosen different [career] paths…but we most certainly have been influenced by them significantly and profoundly. Their influence is always a part of what we are doing.”
Due’s own career path didn’t come as much of a surprise to her parents. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Harvard University, she earned a master’s degree at the University of Sussex in England, studying race relations and organizational culture on a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholarship. Her decision to become a lawyer was solidified when she saw the law being used as a tool to effect social change.
As a law student at Cornell University, Due was an NAACP Legal Defense Fund Earl Warren Scholar and interned at the United Nations Centre for Human Rights. Public interest law was Due’s intended career path, but she realized that she could serve the public interest and pay off her law school debt at the same time by working at a Wall Street law firm committed to pro bono work. After receiving her law degree, she worked as a litigation associate at Winthrop, Stimson, Putnam and Roberts, which awarded her a year-long pro bono fellowship to work at Rome’s SOS Razzismo Italia, a nonprofit organization that was part of a network of European organizations committed to fighting racial discrimination.
Johnita Due receives a hug from her father, John Due, at her graduation.
Now, as senior counsel at CNN, she advises on newsgathering, First Amendment, and copyright issues, and has been involved in access matters such as CNN’s successful lawsuits against the state of Florida for a copy of its suspected felons list, and against the federal government for access to the Hurricane Katrina recovery process. Due developed a minority outreach program for the Turner legal department to encourage minority college students to go to law school, and also serves as chair of CNN’s Diversity Council.
Lydia Due is currently on hiatus from practicing law—she was an attorney with the general counsel’s office of the Department of Health and Human Services before choosing to stay home with her young children. She, too, believes that the messages of equality and diversity must be spread, and she devotes much of her time to school volunteering. Tananarive Due, who co-authored a book with her mother in 2003 called Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights, also is strongly committed to civil rights.
Planting the Seeds of Inspiration
Anne Robinson, vice president and senior counsel at American Express Travel Related Services Company, Inc., credits her parents for her devotion to civil rights law—William Robinson is a prominent civil rights attorney, and Arlene Robinson’s entire legal career has been in the public sector. William Robinson is the founding dean of the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law and a tenured member of its faculty. He worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he ran the Litigation Division. He also served as executive director of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. He argued the first Title IV gender discrimination in the workplace case before the Supreme Court. Arlene Robinson worked as a children’s advocate in the Washington, DC, Corporation Counsel’s office before being appointed a magistrate judge in the Washington, DC, Superior Court. Although she retired a few years ago, Mrs. Robinson still hears cases as an independent hearing officer for the Department of Justice’s Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program.
“[Anne] certainly had the opportunity to observe me and her mother as we went through professional life,” says Mr. Robinson. The parents’ public interest legal work spilled over into their home, as well. Just as John and Patricia Due often did, William and Arlene Robinson invited their children into the discussions and experiences that were fundamental to their work. The company they kept was far from ordinary and had a profound impact on Anne Robinson’s character and aspirations. “I remember Thanksgiving dinners, sitting at a table with all lawyers and two judges,” she says.
Mr. Robinson adds that when colleagues came to their house, they interacted with his daughter in such a way as to respect her as an individual. “Anne would observe and interact with some of the more prominent civil rights leaders in the country and form her own relationships with them,” he says. The impact was significant. “I remember being comfortable with debate discussions and the role of authority,” Anne recalls. “Questioning authority, as well, was very much a part of my upbringing.”
In fact, much of Anne Robinson’s formative years involved lawyer-like experiences. “I practiced litigating on my children,” says Mrs. Robinson, noting that before appearing in court, she often rehearsed her oral arguments and opening statements using Anne and her siblings as a practice audience. Mrs. Robinson says, “I thought I’d have three lawyers, quite frankly, after giving presentations and then listening to their critiques.”
It was Anne in particular who latched on to her mother’s work. In fact, on many occasions, she chose to accompany Mrs. Robinson to court, sit in on panel discussions, and join her parents at legal meetings. “I went to more American Bar Association meetings growing up than I do now,” Anne says with a laugh.
Though Anne was not always the only child in attendance, Mrs. Robinson says she was the only child who showed a genuine interest in participating. “I was a little fearful once when she really got into debating at an ABA forum,” she says, laughing. Mr. Robinson remembers that occasion as a milestone in his daughter’s path toward the practice of law. “I distinctly recall when she was a junior or senior in college. She was with us and there was a program on the death penalty, and Bruce Fein was arguing in support of the death penalty. Anne, as part of audience participation, stood up and took him on. Arlene was trying to get her to sit down and making comments like, ‘Sit down, baby. He’ll tear you apart!’ But other people in the audience said, ‘Be calm, Mom. She’s doing just fine.’”
Ironically, it was not evident to Mr. Robinson that his daughter was being affected by his work. It wasn’t until he saw the papers she wrote in college that he realized she had developed into a talented, driven, intelligent individual with an eye for civil rights law. “We were having an influence but I wasn’t aware of it. We weren’t trying to mold a lawyer; we were trying to nurture a young woman,” Mr. Robinson says.
“The seed was always there,” Anne explains. “My father’s influence was inspirational and aspirational. My desire to be a lawyer probably came from my father. Understanding what it meant to be a lawyer came from my mother.” Although she anticipated following directly in her father’s footsteps, things changed during the summer after her first year at Columbia Law School. As an intern for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, she worked on a death penalty case that resulted in the execution of her client. She decided that the magnitude of the responsibility attached to representing individual clients was too intense, so during her second year of law school, she explored alternative legal outlets. Eventually she decided to pursue a career outside of the public service arena and took a position working for the private firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy.
Now Anne Robinson works with small business owners through the OPEN division of American Express. In this role, she provides legal support for credit products, loyalty and acquisition partnerships, new product development initiatives, and general marketing. Although she does not directly deal with public interest law, her devotion to civil rights remains as strong as ever. “I never did, and never will, abandon my commitment to civil rights,” she says. “I’m a mentor with an organization called Legal Outreach, and I’m still a very strong supporter of the Legal Defense Fund. I’m certainly no Sandy Weill, but I am not conservative with my time or checkbook with respect to organizations that I think are really trying to advance a cause and a purpose.”
Then vs. Now
Though Anne Robinson and Johnita Due were shaped by their parents’ work, professionally and personally, their career experiences have not been the same as their parents’ experiences, partly because being a black lawyer in 2008 is different than it was the 1960s. “In 1966, when I entered Columbia Law School, only nine out of 1,000 students were African American,” Mr. Robinson says. In fact, he adds, there were only a thousand African American lawyers practicing nationwide. “Now half the school or more are women and, routinely, there are 20, 30, or more African Americans in a first-year class.”
While the small numbers in the 1960s meant countless hurdles and obstacles for minority lawyers, one aspect of the situation was constructive: It created a close-knit community of black lawyers with ample mentoring opportunities. “I knew all the black students at Columbia, Yale, Harvard, Penn, and George Washington University,” Mr. Robinson says, adding that because only a few law firms were brave enough to hire black lawyers, there was no pipeline to produce mentors for the current generation of young graduates. “It’s in that mainstream law firm context that the inclusiveness has not yet produced an effective system of mentors to black lawyers who are now being hired in more significant numbers.”
Anne Robinson and parents William and Arlene Robinson.
But, he says, the profession as a whole has become much more inclusive. Mrs. Robinson agrees and notes that the field of law has also opened up to women. “When Bill first started law school, there may have been a few women in his class. By the time I started at Howard [University], we may have been close to a third of the class. And that got even higher, to 50 percent. Now, in a lot of law schools, there are more women than men.”
The Robinsons agree that there is better representation of all categories of lawyers, a situation in which Mr. Robinson has had a direct role. He recently won an award from the ABA’s Commission on AIDS for work he did 20 years ago for a task force on the rights of gay and lesbian attorneys. “He was acknowledged by the Section on Individual Rights and Responsibilities for starting the task force on AIDS back when it was not fashionable to be an advocate for gay and lesbian rights and for the rights of AIDS victims,” Anne Robinson explains.
Johnita Due credits much of the momentum behind diversity to corporate America’s recognition of the need to connect to a diverse customer base. “In the past, it was a moral obligation. Today, a lot of businesses and companies look at it as a business imperative,” she explains. “CNN recognizes that it helps our journalism and it helps our business to be inclusive in our programming.”
As for the future of diversity in the profession, the Due family emphasizes that it is imperative to learn from the past and take responsibility for the future. This means reaching out to college students, educating them on diversity issues, building bridges, and impressing on others that everyone has a stake in promoting diversity.
Mr. Due believes that the next generation of lawyers must understand that, while their parents’ generation elevated minorities from second to first class, the ship is headed for catastrophe and it is their responsibility to continue that legacy and avoid hitting an iceberg. “They have a mission for saving America,” he says. “They have to accept responsibility—just like my wife and I accepted responsibility back in the 1960s—to change society.”
For Mr. Robinson, his daughter’s commitment to furthering civil rights and diversity in the profession is a step in the right direction. “[Anne continues] to have good values and respect the profession for all the reasons that it is one of the noble professions,” he says, adding that seeing her carry on the legacy that he and his wife worked so hard for is infinitely satisfying. “It’s an enormous source of personal pride and gratification.” DB
Kara Mayer Robinson is a freelance writer based in northern New Jersey.
From the January/February 2008 issue of Diversity & The Bar®