April 01, 2015

Human Rights Hero: Gay J. McDougall

James E. Coleman Jr.

On April 27, 1994, Gay McDougall stood next to Nelson Mandela as he cast his first vote ever in a democratic election in South Africa after spending 27 years in prison for anti-apartheid activities. In her later tribute to Mandela in Human Rights magazine, she called this experience a “magical moment.”

For lawyers such as McDougall who dedicate their careers to the pursuit of human rights, iconic photographs of Mandela and McDougall together are sources of inspiration and proof that the struggle against oppression and discrimination is never futile, even against an intractable evil such as apartheid. McDougall’s heroic journey from her birth in segregated Atlanta to the dawn of the new South Africa reflects her intelligence, leadership, legal skills, commitment, and perseverance as a trailblazing freedom fighter, liberator, and global human rights advocate.

In 1999, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded McDougall a MacArthur Fellowship in recognition of her world-changing work. In December 2015, McDougall will travel to South Africa to receive an Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo presidential medal of honor for service by a foreign national to the people of South Africa.

McDougall grew up in Atlanta when it was the center of the American Civil Rights Movement. Her role models were leaders such as Julian Bond and Martin Luther King Jr., whom she saw in her neighborhood, as well as her mother and aunts, who inspired her to pursue a life of service. Eventually that led her to Yale Law School and then to Washington, D.C., and the Southern Africa Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law.

The Southern Africa Project was founded in response to the South African government’s adoption of the 1967 Terrorism Act, which it used to detain political activists and lawyers indefinitely, without trial or legal representation. McDougall became director of the project in 1980 and greatly expanded its activities and influence. McDougall raised money and recruited lawyers to defend political prisoners in South Africa. As a result of her efforts, thousands of political prisoners were freed. Ironically, McDougall herself did not visit South Africa until 1990, when Mandela was released from prison; before that, she was banned from travel in the country.

McDougall’s efforts were so effective and her network of lawyers and supporters so extensive that when South Africa established the Independent Electoral Commission to organize and oversee the country’s first non-racial democratic election, she was one of only five non-South Africans appointed to the 16-member commission and the only American. It was in that capacity that she accompanied Mandela as he voted on April 27, 1994.

After McDougall stepped down as director of the Southern Africa Project in 1994, she continued her human rights work in a number of key positions. She was the executive director of Global Rights, an international human rights organization that focuses on adoption of gender equity laws and the development of indigenous leaders on issues of gender equity. She has served in several roles in the United Nations, including UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues; expert member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; and expert member (alternate) of the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.

McDougall has been a visiting scholar or distinguished scholar at several American universities, including Georgetown Law Center and Fordham Law School. She currently is Distinguished-Scholar-in-Residence at the Leitner Center for International Justice at Fordham Law School. She was recently reelected by 128 countries of the UN General Assembly for another four-year term as a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. She was married to civil rights pioneer John Payton, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who died in 2012.

James E. Coleman Jr.

James E. Coleman Jr. is the John S. Bradway Professor of the Practice of Law, Director of the Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility, and Co-Director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke Law School.