Here we sit in a law school conference room in suburban Boston. That’s a long way from Scott, Mississippi, where you were born. Tell me about your early life.
I looked up Scott recently; only about 90 people live there now. Back then, it was home to a huge cotton plantation. My parents and my grandparents worked there, planting in the spring, weeding in the summer, and harvesting the cotton in the fall. But early in my life, we’d moved to a nearby small town called Greenville in Washington County, where I grew up in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.
I went to segregated schools. The public facilities were segregated, too. My first encounter with white people on an equal basis was really in college.
Are you one of those people who knew she wanted to be a lawyer from an early age?
Yes, I think so. I never had to wrestle with what I wanted to do with my life. That question was really settled for me by the way that I grew up. I was six years old when Emmett Till was killed, the same age as Ruby Bridges when she went to an all-white school with U.S. Marshals, and I remember that vividly. Everybody knew families that had moved away to Chicago and sent the kids back to spend the summer with grandma and grandpa, like Emmett Till did. My friends and I were frightened that it would happen again. So, I was aware of injustice at a very young age.
We had a mail subscription to a Black newspaper called the Chicago Defender to learn what was going on with Black people because the local newspapers didn’t cover our stories. I was a reader, and that’s where I learned about the brutality of segregation and came to understand that I had to be a part of the challenge to the status quo, and I decided then that I was going to be a lawyer.
So, wanting to change things, you went off to college—and at an earlier age than most of us.
As bad as segregation was, it had an upside in that the Black educators encouraged us to be good students and really cared about where we were going on our journey. No one in my family had been to college; my stepfather couldn’t even read and write. I was 15 when I left high school in 1964 to go to college, without a high school diploma, because I was anxious to get going. Things were happening: Medgar Evers had been killed the year before; Freedom Rides were making news; and organizers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were in Mississippi. My parents wouldn’t let me get involved, so I just thought, let’s get out of here so I could call my own shots.
I enrolled at a small private college, Tougaloo College, that was very much involved in the civil rights movement. Everyone in the movement came to Tougaloo, including Martin Luther King [Jr.] and Stokely Carmichael. We were not a state school, so we didn’t have to worry about what Governor Ross Barnett would say. Our professors went to great lengths to bring intellectuals, scholars, writers, and civil rights activists to our campus. One of them, Frank Parker, a lawyer from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, taught a constitutional law course at the college, and I met Marian Wright Edelman, a Black woman lawyer from Yale who also worked at the Lawyers Committee in Jackson [,Mississippi]. The deal was done.
And then on to law school?
Growing up, I can recall only two Black lawyers in all of Mississippi. I think I applied to Ole Miss and Tulane, but I wasn’t accepted, so I ended up at the University of Wisconsin Law School. In the late 1960s, the University of Wisconsin [in Madison] was a center for protests against the Vietnam War and other issues. A group of law students convinced the dean that the school should open its doors to Black students—but the dean said he didn’t know any. So these white students went on a road trip to the South and came to Tougaloo. They told me don’t worry, just fill out the application. I did, and I was admitted, along with three other Black students—two of whom dropped out after the first year. I was one of two Black graduates in the class of 1971.
Madison had a well-organized anti-war movement, and those of us agitating about civil rights issues collaborated with the white students protesting the war. That was my first experience in organizing beyond the civil rights movement.
To start your legal career, you came to Boston—for which generations of us are grateful. How did that happen?
It’s where the opportunities were. I won a Reginald Heber Smith Fellowship coming out of law school, which placed young lawyers in legal services programs around the country. I found a position at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI). MLRI was a welcoming place for Black and female lawyers; I had two other Black lawyers as colleagues! Allan Rodgers, my boss, allowed me to pick the areas of law that interested me. I decided on prisoners’ rights. Massachusetts had a Black commissioner of correction at the time, and the prison guards were trying to get rid of him. We got involved in trying to support him and his reforms.
Your next job was at the Roxbury Defenders as a public defender, right?
That’s right. The organization did traditional criminal defense, but the model of the office was more holistic, trying to address the causes of why people were involved in what got them to us. We had mental health counselors and tried to provide social services, too. I spent four years there.
What type of reception did you get from judges as a young Black woman defense lawyer?
I was in court nearly every day. I remember one Superior Court appearance where mine was the last case called, and the judge began by asking me if I was a lawyer. I understood that as a challenge to my bona fides as a lawyer, and I pushed back. I demanded to know why he was asking me to justify my presence at the bar when none of the other lawyers had been asked that question. He said, “If you won’t answer my question, you can’t talk in my courtroom,” and he left the bench. There I stood, humiliated, with my client, who must have been wondering what he was doing with a lawyer who obviously did not have the respect of the court. My supervisors, one of whom eventually became the chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, dealt with the situation, and the judge apologized, sort of. He had never seen a Black woman lawyer, he said.
At the time, the judges were all well-connected white men, and some of them would act terribly toward Black defendants. And you could have counted the number of Black lawyers on one hand. So, in my early years, I had to fight to be who I was. For example, when I was co-counseling a case with a white male lawyer, the judge would not allow me to join my colleague at a conference in his lobby. We complained, and the chief judge took this judge off the case. A Black judge was assigned, paving the way for a fair jury trial, which ultimately resulted in an acquittal. Ironically, when I became a Superior Court judge years later, I was appointed to the offending judge’s seat.
Next, you worked at public interest legal organizations affiliated with MIT and then Harvard—and you expanded into other areas of civil rights.
Yes, and on a more national scale. At the Harvard Center for Law and Education, a backup center for legal services organizations, I litigated against the school system in Gulfport, Mississippi, about its disparate disciplinary treatment of Black kids. The school board settled with us on the day of the trial.
So far, you had been an employee of various organizations. Now, a decade into your career, you decided to be your own boss.
There were not that many senior Black lawyers to serve as mentors. So, in my generation, we mentored and supported each other. We made it up as we went along.
At first, I teamed up with Charles Johnson, a brilliant Black lawyer who became a judge on the Boston Municipal Court, and Winston Kendall, two Harvard graduates who chose to work in the Black community. Later, after practicing alone for a while, I joined a firm with two other Black women: Margaret Burnham and Judith Dilday. We had the first law firm founded by women of color in New England.
Is it a coincidence that all three of you served as judges at some point?
Margaret was a pioneer. She was the first Black woman to be a judge in the state, having already served on the Boston Municipal Court for a few years, and was now back practicing law. And yes, Judith and I later became judges, in my case 10 years later.
What type of law did you practice?
Much of it was civil rights law, although I did criminal defense work as well. I specialized in employment discrimination and police misconduct cases in state and federal courts. We were too small to take on big cases, so we would sometimes partner with the American Civil Liberties Union or the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights as cooperating attorneys. One of my proudest achievements is a win for a Black family in a case involving a fatal police shooting arising from a traffic stop. At the time, in the early ’90s, it was the largest civil rights judgment of that era.
I greatly admired and learned so much about life and the value of resistance from some of my clients. One case that stands out is that of a woman named Egypt Walker. Her family was targeted for racist violence when she and her children moved into a Boston neighborhood that previously had been whites only. She stood her ground after a Molotov cocktail was thrown into her kitchen window. In a stunning act of courage that I marvel at to this day, she approached the white teens who had been harassing her family and pleaded with them to share the playground with the new Black kids in the neighborhood. They cursed her and chased her home. I wonder if I would have done what she did, pleading for a humane response from these kids. Working with people like her made the practice so fulfilling.
Were you aiming for a judgeship when you were in private practice?
No, I didn’t become a lawyer to later become a judge. If I had been thinking about being a judge, I am sure that I probably would have passed on some of the cases and causes I got involved in. But, after 30 years of practice and activism, I acquired a broad range of experience in different areas of civil rights litigation and criminal defense. With the encouragement and support of my friends in the legal community, I finally decided to apply for a Superior Court judgeship, trusting that I could still do good in the cause of justice. When I was appointed in 2001, the press account reported it as a Democrat being appointed by a Republican governor even though I had never been involved in electoral politics.
And you stayed on that court for 12 years—just long enough to help me in my orientation when I joined you on that bench. Were you the first Black woman on the court?
No. By then, there were already two Black women among the 82 judges on the Superior Court bench statewide.
How did the transition go?
It took some getting used to the idea that I could still contribute to the cause of justice as a judge because for so long I had been an advocate who thought I could change things by working to change the law if necessary. But judges have to respect the law as it is. And that was probably a reason that I had resisted applying for the bench. When I was struggling with this in one case, I sought out Mal Graham [a Black judge who had preceded Justice Hines to the Superior Court and the Appeals Court], and he told me that I simply had to “resist my natural instincts.” But that was hard.
Here is an example. A few months after my appointment, I had to decide on a motion to suppress statements made by a 15-year-old charged with murder. I thought back to a similar case from my lawyer days when I represented a 16-year-old in very similar circumstances. I didn’t think my client had committed the murder, and I was lucky enough to win an acquittal for him. Even so, I could see all the ways the system had put my client into this position in the first place.
Now I suspected that the same thing had happened to this defendant. This young man had been brought to the police station by his mother who, out of religious fervor, made him confess. I thought this was so unfair. But the law said that, despite this terrible advice from his mother, the confession could be used against him. I sat on my decision for a long time, hoping that an appellate decision might change things. But eventually, as a judge, I just had to apply the law, which required me to deny the motion to suppress. He was ultimately convicted before another judge and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
But that was not the end of the story. Later, after I retired, I reached out to this man through his attorney, and he was willing to talk to me. We had a long conversation, and we kept in touch afterward. He applied for parole after the Supreme Judicial Court struck down life without parole sentences for juveniles. After having been in contact with him over the years, I decided I could write a letter of support to the parole board, which granted him parole.
That’s just a story about how I wrestled with my feelings as a human being and my responsibilities as a judge. Some judges don’t think about what they bring to their decisions based on their life experiences. They just consider themselves to be tabula rasas, but I don’t believe in that. That was one of the constant themes of my time as a jurist, to think about what I bring to each decision.
When you say, “what I bring,” is that about race or gender?
It can be about race, or gender, or other things, such as how I feel about the person in front of me. I don’t like rapists, for example. But I have to be aware of that feeling. As a judge, you have to be aware of who you are and what you bring to a decision. And that sometimes makes the job hard.
After 12 years on the Superior Court, you moved up to the Appeals Court. Why make that move, especially in your mid-60s?
I thought I should try something different. I was a little worried that the job required so much writing, which I had sometimes found difficult. But I liked the job, and I would have been perfectly happy spending the rest of my career on the Appeals Court.
But you didn’t; a year or so later, you were elevated to the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC).
Roderick Ireland, the SJC chief justice and the only Black on that court, was retiring, and the governor’s office inquired about my interest in the SJC vacancy. I said that I had no interest. I received another call a little bit later strongly encouraging me to apply for the position. In that moment, I reflected on the court’s 322-year history, the fact that no Black woman had ever sat on the court, and my own thinking about my career as being about more than what I wanted out of life. So I stepped out on faith and said that I would apply. One of my Appeals Court colleagues was with me, and after I finished this phone conversation, I said to her, “Take this cup from me.” The thought just terrified me. But the conversation brought me back to where I started in the law, seeing myself as an agent of change and trusting that I could do the job.
And you became the first Black woman to serve on our highest court. You served for three years until our mandatory retirement age caught up to you. Tell us about some of the decisions that you wrote.
The one that most people think of is Brangan, where the court held that the only purpose of cash bail is to ensure that the defendant appeared for the next hearing, and so a judge had to set bail at a level that the defendant and his family could afford unless the judge had a documented reason to worry that the defendant might fail to appear.
I also wrote the Warren decision, based in part on data collected by the Boston Police Department itself that showed a disproportionate impact of investigatory stops on Black men in Boston. Looking at the facts, we simply validated a Black man’s fear of the police, noting that a Black man fleeing the police might just as easily be motivated by the desire to avoid the recurring indignity of being racially profiled as by the desire to hide criminal activity. That decision was widely reported, and it has been heavily cited in cases involving racial profiling and police stops.
But there were other decisions, not so well-known. One was Magadini, which involved a homeless man who had been issued no-trespassing orders by buildings where he sometimes slept. When it was too cold to sleep outside, he trespassed anyway. He offered a necessity defense, which we accepted. I am grateful for the opportunity to write that opinion because it allowed me to talk about how the law treats homeless people and because we could affirm this man’s humanity without offending the law.
Your decision to reluctantly take up the cup and serve on the Supreme Judicial Court certainly made you a Waymaker. While you were still on the court, another Black woman was appointed, and now she is the chief justice. Other current justices on the seven-person court include a Black man and a Latina. Are you proud of that fact?
Of course, I couldn’t be happier for the new justices who are now able to participate in the deliberations on issues of great importance to the commonwealth, and for the cause of equal justice under the law. I remember well the robust debates and discussions, informed by the diversity of experiences on the court. In my humble opinion, this is essential to the aspiration of equal justice under the law.
You once said that the law is a lifetime vocation. What law are you doing in retirement?
I am teaching my course in Race and Policing here at Boston College (BC) Law School. The nature of the course requires me to be an avid reader of legal literature and popular literature because the course changes each year as things develop. I’ve been collecting opinion pieces and policy debates right now on the Tyre Nichols case. I know we will be talking this fall about the fact that the officers who killed Nichols were all Black. I will teach that the Nichols case is about race, but it’s also about the culture of policing—we give police the role of controlling Black people, and Black police officers don’t necessarily see any reason to think of things any differently.
In addition to my course, I do other things at BC Law, such as mentoring students and making presentations when I’m asked in other classes. I’m here at BC today preparing to talk about the felony murder rule in another professor’s class next week.
Do you have any advice for today’s Black girl in Greenville, Mississippi? Or for judges who will read this piece?
My goodness. I’m the last one to give advice because I never moved according to a grand scheme for success. I just allowed myself to be moved by the human suffering brought on by racial injustice, and I jumped into the various fires that were burning around me. I was always inspired by my (s)hero, Fannie Lou Hamer, who often sang that song about letting one’s light shine on the dark places in our society. If you can do that, it’s all good.