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June 12, 2024

Civil rights activist Eva Paterson to receive ABA Thurgood Marshall Award

WASHINGTON, June 12, 2024 — The American Bar Association Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice will honor racial justice and civil rights activist Eva Jefferson Paterson, co-founder and former president of the Equal Justice Society.

The award will be presented at a dinner celebration honoring Paterson’s longtime career advancing civil rights during the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago on Saturday, Aug. 3, at 7:30 p.m. CDT at the Fairmont Chicago at Millennium Park.

“Eva Paterson has been one of this nation's champions for civil rights throughout her 40-year career,” said Robin Runge, chair of the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice. “She has dedicated her life to fighting for equal access to education and opportunity, providing free legal services to low-income individuals, litigating civil rights cases, and advocating for social justice for decades while leading ground-breaking campaigns against the death penalty, juvenile incarceration and discrimination based on sexual orientation. Eva epitomizes what it means to be a civil rights and social justice hero, and we have all benefited from her tireless commitment and tenacity.” 

The award honors U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who epitomized individual commitment, in word and action, to the cause of civil rights in this country. The award recognizes similar long-term contributions by other members of the legal profession to the advancement of civil rights, social justice and human rights in the United States.

Paterson has spent her life advocating for people. She served as president of the Equal Justice Society from 2000-2022 and has worked to transform the nation’s consciousness on race through efforts in law, social science and the arts. She has presented before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judicial Conference on topics concerning white supremacy, implicit bias and affirmative action.

Prior to her work at the Equal Justice Society, Paterson spent 26 years at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, 13 of those years as executive director. There, she led the effort to provide free legal services to low-income clients and litigated class action civil rights cases.

Paterson co-founded and chaired the California Civil Rights Coalition for 18 years and currently serves as the coalition’s steering committee co-chair. She is a leading voice in campaigns against Proposition 187 (anti-immigrant) and Proposition 209 (anti-affirmative action) and numerous other statewide campaigns against the death penalty, juvenile incarceration and discrimination against lesbians and gay men.

She also served as vice president of the ACLU National Board for eight years and chaired the boards of Equal Rights Advocates and the San Francisco Bar Association.

The author of numerous articles, including “Can’t We Get Along?” and “The Future of Affirmative Action” (California Lawyer), Paterson got her start in civil rights early. As a teen, she traveled around Illinois to deliver Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. During her undergraduate years at Northwestern University, she was the first African American student government president. She rose to prominence as a college student leader for leading nonviolent protests following the 1970 shooting of student demonstrators at Kent State University and her debate with then-U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew on live television. She was named one of Mademoiselle’s “Ten Young Women of the Year” and was featured on the covers of Ebony and Jet magazines. She was also called to testify before Congress.

Paterson is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. Following her graduation, she worked for the Legal Aid Society of Alameda County and co-founded A Safe Place, a shelter for battered women in Oakland, California.

On the announcement of the award, Runge added, “Her unwavering commitment to social justice and civil rights serves as a model for all of us and makes it utterly clear that she is deserving of the Thurgood Marshall Award.”

The ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice provides leadership within the legal profession in protecting and advancing human rights, civil liberties and social justice. Representing nearly 10,000 members with a wide range of professional interests and expertise, the section keeps its members abreast of complex civil rights and social justice issues and ensures that they remain a focus of law and policy.

Reporters interested in attending the 2024 ABA Annual Meeting should contact Media Relations and Strategic Communications at [email protected].

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