Parker, Kellis E. 1942–2000
Kellis E. Parker 1942–2000
Educator, lawyer, civil rights activist
In 1972 Kellis E. Parker became the first full-time African-American law professor at Columbia University in New York City. Known for his outspoken advocacy of ending racial discrimination in the academic world and for his vocation as a jazz trombonist, Parker died of acute respiratory distress syndrome on October 10, 2000, at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York. He was 58 years old.
Kellis E. Parker was born in Kinston, North Carolina, on January 19, 1942. His parents operated the first black dry cleaning store in town. They had to struggle against prejudice and segregation. Parker later wrote a book about their lives entitled, The East End Dry Cleaners Hello Blues.
Parker met segregation laws head-on at an early age. His high school was segregated, and Parker, who became an accomplished trombonist, was head of the school band. His brother Maceo played the saxophone and brother Melvin played the drums. Both brothers became professional musicians. Parker appealed to the town Chamber of Commerce to change the laws mandating that black bands must march at the rear of any parade. To Parker’s total astonishment, as he said later, they agreed. He remarked, according to ObitPage.com, “Nothing had happened in that town to make you think anything would change.”
But things were changing in the American South in the late 1950s. When Parker graduated from high school he applied for admission to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He and four other African Americans were the first to integrate the campus in 1960. The following year, Parker and a classmate, Allard K. Lowenstein, who was later elected to Congress, helped to organize demonstrations that further desegregated college facilities at Chapel Hill.
Parker graduated from North Carolina in 1964. From there he enrolled at Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C. He was editor-in-chief of the Howard Law Journal from 1967 to 1968 and graduated in 1968 at the top of his class.
The next step on his career ladder was a year spent as clerk for Spottswood W. Robinson III, a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. From there, Parker had planned on returning to his roots in North Carolina. But Robinson advised otherwise. The judge felt that his young clerk was a natural teacher.
Following Robinson’s suggestion, Parker went to the University of California at Davis where he headed various clinical programs. He was an acting professor of law from 1969 to 1972. Parker then joined the faculty of the well-respected Columbia University Law School in New York as an associate, becoming the school’s first full-time black professor. Three years later, he was given tenure and made full professor. He also taught seminars at Howard Law School and was faculty advisor to the school’s law journal.
From the beginning of his career at Columbia, Parker made known his firm belief that racial discrimination
Born Kellis E. Parker on January 19, 1942, in Kinston, NC; died on October 10, 2000, in New York, NY; children: Kimberly, Sheila, Emily, Kellis, Jr., KaL Education: University of North Carolina, B.A., 1964; Howard University Law School, 1968.
Career: Judge Spottswood Robinson III, law clerk, 1968-69; University of California, Davis, acting professor of law, 1969-72; Columbia University Law School, associate professor, 1972-75, professor, 1975-2000.
must end in the world of academia. He said that the experience of black Americans with law taught that they should follow principles, not the civil laws that had fostered segregation. In 1975 his case book, Modern Judicial Remedies, introduced solutions to civil rights problems into the law school curriculum. He also published Law and the Black Experience: A Minority Report, which resolves U.S. race issues by using the law and a creative sense of justice.
Although immersed in education, Kellis Parker never lost his love of music, nor his desire to play the trombone. He often spoke of embracing jazz as a framework for understanding law. He taught a law course governing music contracts, which was called “Jazz Roots Revisited: The Law the Slaves Made.” He said in much the same way that black Americans approached jazz, they improvised rules that would enable them to deal with the problem they encountered in their lives. When not in the classroom or spending time with his five children, Parker played in jazz bands at Columbia and elsewhere in New York City and in Europe. In 2000, he performed at the jazz festival in Naples, Italy, with the Don Shaw Group.
In 1977 Parker left Columbia to become director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. He returned, however, a year later, retaining his post with the defense fund. In 1994 he was named Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law, an endowed position at Columbia.
In addition to his academic career, Parker was involved in numerous organizations. He served as chairperson of the Community Action Legal Service, and was a member of the National Conference on Black Lawyers, the Association of American Law Schools, and the National Committee on Legal & Ethical Implications of Sickle Cell Anemia. He was also a member of Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, the Society of American Law Teachers, The Lawyers Guild, and the African-American Historical and Genealogical Association.
In late September of 2000 Parker was struck suddenly with acute respiratory distress syndrome, and he died on October 10th. Said David Leebron, law dean at Columbia, in the Columbia University News of October 2000, “We will deeply miss the optimism, enthusiasm and generosity he brought to every endeavor.”
Who’s Who Among African Americans, vol 13, Gale, 2000.
Columbia Law School, May 2001.
Columbia University News, Oct. 13, 2000.
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