Amaker, Norman Carey

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Norman Carey Amaker


Law professor, civil rights activist

Norman C. Amaker had several things in common with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For one, they shared a birthday. More importantly, they shared a passion for and a commitment to social justice and a burning desire to make the legal structures of the United States pay attention to matters of race and discrimination. During some of the civil rights movement's key moments, Amaker served as King's attorney. As a leading legal scholar on civil rights matters, it could be argued that Amaker represented an entire nation.

Norman Carey Amaker was born on January 15, 1935, in New York, New York, and grew up in the predominantly black Harlem section of the city. He was raised in a politically engaged household. His parents, Gladys and Carey Amaker, were social activists who worked on various issues through their church. As a teen, Amaker often worked with his father on these projects, passing out leaflets and helping with other tasks. During his youth, Amaker was strongly influenced by the work of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the noted Harlem minister, community activities, and, eventually, Congressman.

Worked under Marshall at NAACP

After finishing high school, Amaker went to Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he graduated with honors in 1956. He then moved back to New York and enrolled in law school at Columbia University. He received his law degree from Columbia in 1959, at a time when the civil rights movement was in high gear. He immediately immersed himself in the movement. Fresh out of law school, Amaker was hired by Thurgood Marshall—who went on to become the first black U.S. Supreme Court Justice—as a staff attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

At the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Amaker played a role in many important civil rights cases during the early 1960s. He served as counsel for the plaintiffs in cases challenging racial discrimination in every corner of society, including public schools, housing, jury selection, elections, and employment. He represented thousands of civil rights protesters in the South, arguing cases at every level of the judicial system, all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Amaker's highest-profile client was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he represented in both Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. When King wrote his famous essay on law and justice, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," in 1963, it was Amaker who delivered the document from the jailhouse to the printer to be disseminated to the public. As busy as he was standing up for the civil rights of black Americans in the South, Amaker found time for a social life. In 1962 he married Mattie Jeannette Owens. The couple eventually had three children: Alicia, Alana, and Arthur.

In 1967 Amaker published his first book on civil rights, titled Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. The following year, he was promoted to first assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a position he held for three years. He left the organization in 1971 to become executive director of the Neighborhood Legal Services Program in Washington, DC. He switched jobs again in 1973, when he accepted a position as general counsel for the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing. After just a short time there, however, Amaker felt the pull of the field he would work in for the rest of his career, education. In the fall of 1973, he was hired as a professor of law at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Amaker taught at Rutgers until 1976, when he accepted a professorship at Loyola University in Chicago, where he would remain for the duration of his career and his life.

Established Himself as Leading Legal Scholar

At Loyola, Amaker further established himself as a leading authority on civil rights law and federal civil procedures. He taught courses in civil rights law, civil procedure, federal jurisdiction, and constitution law. He was also a prolific writer, publishing articles on his areas of expertise in leading law journals and other periodicals. In 1986, the same year Martin Luther King, Jr., Day became a national holiday, Amaker was instrumental in establishing an annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Lecture Series at Loyola. Amaker himself delivered the first lecture in the series. He delivered another in 1993. While he was solidifying his national reputation, Amaker was also involved in local and professional politics. He served on his local school board from 1980 to 1987, and on the board of governors of the Society of American Law Teachers from 1979 to 1987.

Amaker gained national attention with the 1988 publication of his book Civil Rights and the Reagan Administration, a highly critical analysis of the federal government's record in enforcing civil rights laws during the Reagan presidency. He followed that up with a paper, initially delivered at a 1990 conference and later published by the American Law Institute, called "The Faithfulness of the Carter Administration in Enforcing Civil Rights."

In 1990 Amaker worked with Linda Greene, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin, to co-found the Midwestern People of Color Legal Scholarship Conference, an annual meeting at which scholars gather to discuss the work of professors of color teaching and researching at law schools across the Midwest. The success of the conference led others to develop similar events in other parts of the country.

Untimely Death Sparked Honors

By the 1990s, Amaker was regularly receiving honors for his long career as both an expert on and activist in civil rights. In 1995 he was named Faculty Member of the Year by Loyola. The following year, he was a Distinguished Visiting Professor at William Mitchell Law School in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Amaker died unexpected at his Skokie, Illinois, home on June 7, 2000. After his death, Amaker's memory was honored in a number of ways by a variety of individuals and institutions. On November 29, 2000, the Illinois House of Representatives passed a resolution officially mourning his death. The Midwestern People of Color Legal Scholarship Conference, which he had co-founded a decade earlier, named an award after Amaker. And the Society of American Law Teachers named its annual Midwest Public Interest Law Retreat after him. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley proclaimed January 15, 2001 to be Norman C. Amaker Day. That day—which also happened to be the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday—Loyola held a memorial celebration of Amaker's life. The people of Chicago had two important civil rights leaders to honor that day.

At a Glance …

Born Norman Carey Amaker on January 15, 1935, in New York, NY; died on June 7, 2000; married Mattie Jeannette Owens, 1962; children: Alicia, Alana, Arthur. Education: Amherst College, BA, 1956; Columbia University, JD, 1959.

Career: NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, New York, NY, staff attorney, 1960-68, first assistant counsel, 1968-71; Neighborhood Legal Services Program, Washington, DC, executive director, 1971-73; National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing, Washington, DC, general counsel, 1973; Rutgers University, New Jersey, professor of law, 1973-76; Loyola University, Chicago, IL, professor of law, 1976-2000.

Memberships: Society of American Law Teachers, board of directors, 1979-86.

Awards: IBPOE of W (Elks Club) award, 1965; BALSA award, 1973; Faculty Member of the Year, Loyola University, 1995.

Selected writings


Civil Liberties & Civil Rights, Oceana, 1967.

Civil Rights and the Reagan Administration, Urban Institute, 1988.



Chicago Tribune, June 10, 2000, p. 23.

Los Angeles Times, January 20, 1989, p. 1.


"House Journal, House of Representatives, Ninety-First General Assembly, 130th Legislative Day, Wednesday, November 29, 2000—House Resolution 940," Illinois General Assembly, (August 10, 2007).

"In Memoriam: Norman C. Amaker (1935-2000)," Loyola University School of Law, (August 10, 2007).

"News Release: Loyola School of Law to Honor Amaker during Martin Luther King, Jr., Celebration," Loyola University Chicago, (July 5, 2007).

"Who Is Norman Amaker?" 6th Annual Norman Amaker Public Interest Law and Social Justice Retreat, (August 10, 2007).

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Amaker, Norman Carey

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