BY MIKE WISER
The crowd that packed into Langdell North on Monday night had gathered to hear Brandeis’ Prof. Anita Hill. What they heard was not a rehash of the Clarence Thomas nomination controversy, but a tribute to Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., one of the nation’s first African-American judges and a leader in getting the law to become conscious of race.
Before Hill even reached the platform, Charles Ogletree ’78 invited Harvard history Prof. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham to speak of her late husband’s memoirs, which she is compiling into a book. For many in the audience this was their first introduction to Judge Higginbotham, a Yale Law School graduate who began life as a district attorney after all white law firms rejected him because of his race. It was not long before Higginbotham was appointed by Johnson to the District Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and later the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Throughout his life Higginbotham was a strong advocate for affirmative action and civil rights.
Higginbotham’s real legacy, Hill told the audience, was the “intellectual courage” with which he wrote books on American colonial law and law in the antebellum South. He didn’t, Hill said, adopt the detached perspective of the impartial academic by simply arranging facts. He used the history to show how understandings of race permeated the law. He saw his job as a lawyer and a judge to challenge those understandings, she said.
Hill was introduced to Higginbotham the way that the rest of the world was introduced to Anita Hill — through the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. There, Higginbotham was interested not only in the racial aspects of the controversy but in what it said about the relationship between the sexes. Higginbotham found the attitudes in the hearings not unlike those that he had studied in the antebellum South — black women were dominated by white men and by black men.
“I came in sort of with a gender, and he came in to represent the race,” Hill said. No other combination of race and gender, she said, would have lead to Thomas’ confirmation.
“Would Sen. Jesse Helms, given his constituency, have rushed to impugn the integrity of a white woman who had worked for the Reagan administration and taught at Oral Roberts University?” she asked. “Would the leaders of the black community have embraced a white nominee accused of harassing a black female? And, finally, would the 90-year-old Strom Thurmond, veteran of Southern politics, have actually fully and physically embraced a Southern black man whose accuser was blond-haired, blue eyes and white?”
The answers, she said, wouldn’t be comforting.
“According to Higginbotham, had the senators been interested in the question of why Hill was sexually harassed they would have been forced to face immediately and directly the history and present day reality of how black women have been dominated and denigrated by white males and black males in the society,” she said.
The hearings, Hill said, changed the way that people thought about race and gender. In the ten years after she claimed that Thomas sexually harassed her, she has seen an explosion of claims of sexual harassment, improved treatment of such cases in the courts, and companies trying to establish strong policies for dealing with alleged sexual harassment.
Still, Hill said that she didn’t choose to testify just to make a point.
“It was, for me, about integrity,” she said.
For her, that integrity includes not just the integrity of Thomas, but also the right of women to tell about their own experiences.
Higginbotham would have something to say about September 11, Hill told the audience. At a time when even many blacks support racial profiling of terrorists, Hill said that Higginbotham would turn to history. He would remind people of the treatment of the Japanese during World War II. He would also, she said, remind people of the way that a string of arsons in 17th century New York were considered acts of treason because some of the perpetrators may have been black and the city feared a slave revolt.
The legacy of Higginbotham for Hill is his understanding of race, history and the law. “In our legal system it is race — real, not imagined — that illuminates and gives richer meaning to our legal texts.”