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An Interview with Kenneth W. Mack, Inaugural Lawrence D. Biele Professor of Law

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Today’s interview is with Kenneth W. Mack, inaugural Lawrence D. Biele Professor of Law at Harvard University.  Prof. Mack was a speaker at the 2013 Library of Congress National Book Festival, where he discussed his book, Representing the Race:  The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer.  He is also the co-editor of The New Black:  What Has Changed–and What Has Not–with Race in America.

A headshot of Kenneth W. Mack with a bookshelf in the background.
Photo Courtesy of Kenneth W. Mack












Please share your educational and academic background and specifically what made you decide that law was your true vocation?

I started my professional life as an electrical engineer, designing computer chips at Bell Laboratories in the late 1980s after my graduation from Drexel University. I went to law school because I wanted to try something different. I liked technology, but I didn’t feel as though it was my life’s passion. This was, of course, before the development of the World Wide Web, social media, bio-engineering and other fields that now make technology seem like the place to be. I thought that law was my true calling almost from the day I started Harvard Law School. We seemed to be grappling with problems of inequality, politics, economics, policy and history–although we were doing it using lawyers’ tools. It was one of the most exciting periods in my life, and it just seemed completely different than engineering.

How have you used the Library of Congress collections in your research?

I have been making use of the original National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) papers since the 1990s, as well as papers of individuals such as Thurgood Marshall, and the Houston family (Charles Hamilton Houston and his father, William LePre Houston). I still remember fondly my conversations with Library of Congress archivist Adrienne Cannon about the library’s collections in the mid-1990s when I was just getting started on the research that would become Representing the Race. I also made fairly good use of the Law Library Reading Room, as well as the Main Reading Room in the Jefferson building which is one of my favorite rooms in the world. I was able to examine rare books at the Library of Congress that I couldn’t find anywhere else.

The Library’s current exhibition, The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom, commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which many consider to be the most important piece of civil rights legislation in history. Why do you think it is important to remember the civil rights movement in present times and what specific lessons do you think we can draw from this time period as we consider equality issues today?

I was one of the academic advisors for the Civil Rights Act exhibition. It’s important to remember the civil rights movement because the movement has now become part of the cultural heritage of the United States, and much of the world. When I was growing up, one learned a bit about Martin Luther King, Jr. just during black history month, but now my children study the movement as part of their main curriculum in elementary school. When I was young, King was still a somewhat controversial figure and some mainstream politicians were still saying, or implying, that he was a Communist dupe. It’s very important that King, and a host of ordinary people who have been recovered by recent historical work, are now embraced as part of what every informed American needs to know to be a responsible citizen of our country. It’s equally important that one monumental product of this movement–the ’64 Act–be embraced both as history and as a charter of liberty that still has current relevance, as I have argued in some of my recent writing.

As we confront present inequality, it’s important to remember the broad social goals of the movement–which went beyond simple non-discrimination. They extended to the more structurally-based problems of inequality of access to basic resources, and the sometimes-hidden rules and practices–such as those involving zoning and land use policy, that were used (and whose effects we still live with)–to make racial minorities occupy a different social and economic world than members of the majority group. It’s important to remember this as we confront problems like police shootings, implicit bias, reverse redlining, and unequal access to education, and we debate how to extend the lessons of the movement to newer areas like sexuality.

In your book, you highlighted the lives of many black Americans who normally do not receive attention during heritage celebrations (e.g., John Mercer Langston, the first Dean of Howard Law School, California judge Loren Miller, who advocated against housing discrimination, and Pauli Murray who discussed sex discrimination before it was an even a legal term). What inspired you to write these histories and how do their histories broaden our understanding of the civil rights movement?

I was first inspired to write their stories because they seemed to be overlooked by mainstream histories that focus on Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP. However, once I delved into their archives, I discovered many other things as one always does. Pauli Murray struggled with her sexuality–and hid that struggle from the world–but out of that struggle she helped invent sex discrimination law and influenced figures such as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Loren Miller started his professional career as an idealistic, perhaps even naïve, civil rights advocate; but he wound up as a very practically-minded lawyer who helped invalidate racially restrictive covenants that were being used everywhere–even where I live, in Massachusetts–to reinforce whites’ expectation that no black person should live near them.

Thurgood Marshall and John Mercer Langston struggled–as did all the lawyers in my book, with deep conflicts on both sides of the color line–about what it meant to be a symbol to his racial group as well as an actor in the larger world of law and politics. This of course remains a current issue as members of previously marginalized minority groups have moved into public life in our present day, and as we debate how to integrate newer religious minorities into the mainstream fabric of American life. I found myself writing about something much larger than the problems of African American civil rights lawyers–something that manifests itself in some form in any society that tries to integrate members of different historical groups into one political whole.

Update: This was originally published as a guest post by Liah Caravalho. The author information has been updated to reflect that Liah is now an In Custodia Legis blogger.

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