Arnwine, Barbara c. 1951–
Barbara Arnwine c. 1951–
Barbara Arnwine combined the skills she honed growing up poor in a tough neighborhood with a rigorous formal education and focused these strengths on U.S. civil rights. She was the first African-American woman to head the male-dominated Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. In her position, she became known as a tough lobbyist in Washington, D.C., affecting change to national civil rights and environmental policy with her work there.
Arnwine grew up in a California housing project in the tough Watts neighborhood. She shared what little the family had with her 11 “stair-step” siblings. Arnwine was sent to a foster home after her stepfather—perhaps threatened by the girl’s intelligence and nerve—once stole her savings and brutally beat her. Arnwine’s first introduction to the law came when she was 16 years old. Her scoliosis (curvature of the spine) had been undiagnosed until then, and doctors told Arnwine that she would not survive her twenties without surgery. Her parents objected, so she petitioned the state to declare her an “emancipated minor” and signed the surgery release forms herself. She spent nine agonizing months in a body cast after surgeons broke her back to straighten its curve. On Arnwine’s resume, listed next to her professional accomplishments, she lists the survival skills she learned growing up. She valued those skills as much as any professional credential.
While she watched several of her siblings fall prey to the ills of the streets, Arnwine won scholarships to the academically challenging Scripps College and then to Duke University School of Law. When she left her family in Watts to live on Scripps’ elegant campus grounds in Claremont, California, Arnwine was struck with guilt. “I felt guilty every day of the week,” she said in an interview with Essence. “We had to dress for dinner, had tea at three, all this stuff. And I’d watch other students play games with food, throw it away and then I’d go home to visit on weekends and my family would be hungry. I was so torn, so bitter.” Though they were proud of her for attending college, Arnwine’s family would poke jealous fun at her. “…it was like, ‘You tryin’ to be like those White folks,’ ‘She think she so smart’ and ‘She tryin’ to be better than us,’” she told Essence. After college graduation, no one could understand Arnwine’s decision to attend law school, why she would pursue another degree rather than sticking around to get a job and help the family.
When she graduated from Duke Law School, in Durham, North Carolina, in 1976, Arnwine was unsure whether to return to her native California. Then she was asked to participate in a mock court activity in a mostly white high school in a suburb of Durham. The few African-American kids in attendance were “huddled in the back of the room watching me intently,” she was quoted in her biography on the Duke University website. After the event was over, one of the group approached Arnwine, and asked if she was a real lawyer. When she replied that yes, she was a real lawyer, the kids told her they didn’t know blacks were
At a Glance…
Born c. 1951; children: Justin Daniel Almiri. Education: Scripps College, Claremont, CA; Duke University School of Law, Durham NC, graduated 1976.
Career: Lawyer. Durham Legal Assistance Program, Reginald Huber Smith fellow, 1976-79; North Carolina Legal Service, C 1979; Boston Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, executive director, until 1989; Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, executive director, 1989-.
Addresses: Office —Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, 1401 New York Avenue NW, Suite 400, Washington D.C. 20005.
allowed to be lawyers. “I realized that there was a lot to be done right in North Carolina.”
So Arnwine remained in Durham, working for the Durham Legal Assistance Program and, as a Reginald Huber Smith fellow, worked on everything from housing to prisoners’ rights issues. She moved on to the Legal Service’s head office in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1979. There, she handled affirmative action policies, reviewed contracts and helped open three new legal aid programs in the state. One of her proudest efforts while at Legal Services was the enrollment of more minority attorneys in the program. When she came on, only three percent of Legal Service’s lawyers were African American. By the time she left, that number was up to 33 percent.
Although concerned with how conservative the North Carolina bar was becoming, and hesitant to leave the state, Arnwine accepted a job in the early 1980s as executive director of the Boston Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. In Boston, she found race relations “horribly strained.” But she also found the bar association there more progressive than North Carolina’s bar, and so felt she was “in a position that I could do something about a major problem,” she said in her Duke biography.
In 1989, Arnwine left Boston for the Washington D.C. office of the national branch of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, where she’d been hired as executive director. She proudly was the first African-American woman to lead the organization—a highpowered, male-dominated group which was founded by John F. Kennedy. The group’s goal—to guarantee equal justice for all—is carried out by attorneys who volunteer their services. There, she worked on fund-raising efforts and public advocacy, and lobbied members of Congress.
In Washington D.C, Arnwine found herself affecting civil rights policy on a national level. She criticized the civil rights record of the Bush and Reagan administrations in a series of papers she wrote. She helped write President Bill Clinton’s 1995 policy speech on affirmative action, and pressured his administration to address the problem of the proximity of environmentally dangerous facilities to many minority neighborhoods. Her work paid off when Clinton issued an Executive Order on Environmental Justice that required federal agencies to ensure their operations were not harming minority communities.
Many affirmative action programs created in the 1960s were struck down by later conservative court decisions. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 overturned these decisions, and Arnwine was an important figure in the fight to pass the act. She stood strongly behind the continued need for affirmative action. She considered it “one of the nation’s most significant intervention tools for combating racial and gender discrimination and promoting equal opportunity, “she said in her Duke biography. “The need for it has by no means disappeared.”
Arnwine did not limit her fight for civil rights to domestic issues. She traveled overseas to address international concerns, as well. She visited Guantanamo Bay in 1992 to investigate problems with Haitian refugees confined there by the U.S. government and visited South Africa in 1994 to help oversee that country’s first legitimate democratic elections. In 1995, she led a delegation of 47 people to the Fourth Women’s Conference in Beijing, China.
Although the black nationalist movement initially captured Anwine’s political interest, she eventually broadened her scope to incorporate female equality. She attended the historic 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. As she matured, Arnwine felt black nationalist politics overlooked women. Later, the message of spirituality and warmth of the 1995 Million Man March registered with her, but she was “disgusted” by its exclusion of women. “I believe gender equality is critical,” she said in Essence, “and nobody can convince me of anything else.”
A major accomplishment for Arnwine was the National Conference on African-American Women and the Law in Washington D.C, which she organized. The aim of the three-day conference was to help clarify the real roles black women play in America, versus the stereotypes depicted in politics and the media. “They’d rather distort our image than tell the truth,” Arnwine said in an interview with Black Issues in Higher Education. “What made this conference unique was that it explored a range of issues pertaining to the status of African-American women and the extent to which elements of the U.S. legal system may promote or impede the improvement of our condition.” Attendees were asked to come ready with ideas about important issues, including welfare, affirmative action, community violence, and health care.
On the final day of the conference, Arnwine was joined by more than 400 charter members—female professors, lawyers, students, and activists—to help launch the National Network for African-American Women and the Law, a “bold and experimental” new lobbying organization, Arnwine said in Black Issues in Higher Education. “Racial and gender dynamics have underlaid the history of this country for decades. It’s time for a black ‘;womenist’ movement…it’s time for us to come together.” Following a proposed #30 million fund-raising campaign, the group’s headquarters were to be located in Washington D.C., on Pennsylvania Avenue, between the White House and the Capitol.
In the bubbling social-political loop of Washington D.C., Arnwine limited her social activities to those relating to work. “I’m isolated a lot by the demands of my work,” she told Essence. “Then my son gets the rest.” A never-wed single mother, Arnwine was once criticized by a minister for being a negative image for young women. He couldn’t have been more wrong, according to Arnwine. She had her son, Justin Daniel Almiri, when she was 36 years old, and had been practicing law for more than ten years. “The probability of my being on welfare is very low, “she said in Essence.” And I’ll tell a girl in a minute not to have a baby.” But she also stressed to women who are struggling with children and are on welfare, that no matter how low they’ve been, they can still achieve.
In her interview with Essence, Arnwine stressed that the law is especially important to African Americans. “It defines who we are much more than it does anybody else,” she said. “We’re not all equal under the Constitution. Our equality hinges on three amendments, and the court is constantly amending the import of those amendments. It’s constantly in flux.” Though she admitted she would probably lose many of the battles before her, she is committed to fighting them, and is full of enthusiasm for her work. In her Duke biography, she said, “This is one of those jobs you can’t believe you’re being paid to do.”
Black Issues in Higher Education, August 10, 1995.
Essence, April 1, 1997, p. 84.
San Francisco Chronicle, June 7, 1995, p. A6.
Additional information was obtained on-line at Duke University School of Law website, http://www.law.duke.edu/alumni/news/dir-97AlumSnaps.htm#Arnwine (December 28, 2000).
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