Radio Sandwell African / Caribbean News

Loretta Lynch: The woman 'to restore faith in US justice'

2015-05-07 11:25:37

Loretta LynchLoretta Lynch is the first black woman to hold the post of US attorney general

On 23 April, after one of the longest confirmation processes in the history of the US, the Senate finally approved Loretta Lynch, President Barack Obama's nominee for attorney general, the nation's highest law officer.

Two days later the city of Baltimore, in Maryland, erupted in rioting over the death of a young black man in police custody there. Madam attorney general, welcome to the job.

Freddie Gray died after suffering unexplained injuries and falling into a coma; six police officers have now been charged in connection with his death.

It follows a string of similar cases - in Ferguson, Missouri, for example, where police shot dead an unarmed black teenager in August last year, or, more recently, in South Carolina, where a white officer shot another unarmed black man five times as he was running away.

Each time something like this happens, it raises the same question with ever increasing urgency: can the law offer justice to black Americans?

Loretta LynchA few days into the job, Loretta Lynch met Freddie Gray's family and community activists in Baltimore

Force for change

Ms Lynch seems peculiarly well-placed to provide the answer.

She was born in North Carolina in 1959, so into a world where law and justice were most certainly not the same thing.

In the early 1960s, life in the American South was still dominated by the so-called "Jim Crow" laws - legislation introduced after the American Civil War to segregate white people and black people.

Despite that, her father, the Reverend Lorenzo Lynch, a Protestant pastor like his father before him, believed the law could be a force for change. And when the future attorney general was a very young girl, he used to take her down to the local law courts.

"When I was growing up we were taught [to] stay away from the courthouse," he told me. "Don't be caught at the courthouse. [But] I thought it was a positive institution, and I wanted her to have a different view of it."

The Jim Crow laws finally went in the mid-1960s, but casual racism remained.


'Jim Crow' laws

The "Jim Crow" laws were used to segregate white people and black people in parts of the United States until the 1960s and covered all aspects of life including:

  • separate public ablution facilities for white people and black people in Alabama, and segregated public transport
  • white people and black people were not allowed to marry each other in Wyoming
  • white children and black children were not allowed to be taught together in Florida
  • in Georgia, black people could not be buried alongside white people

Ms Lynch's mother, Lorine, remembers that her daughter's teachers had trouble accepting how clever she was.

When she was in the second grade - so seven or eight years old - she had to retake a class test because she did so well the first time round.

"[The teachers] felt it was not accurate because she was African-American and all the white students scored lower," Mrs Lynch told me.

Her score was even higher second time round.

No 'play clothes'

None of this seems to have blunted her aspirations. Ms Lynch pursued a childhood dream of going to Harvard - America's oldest institution of higher education - where she completed a first degree in English literature before switching to law.

A student radical she was not. Karen Freeman-Wilson, now a mayor in Indiana, was a member of the same sorority (a student club for women) and remembers how smartly turned-out she always was.

"In college you tend to wear jeans, you tend to wear khakis, you tend to dress down," she says, "but I can't remember an occasion that Loretta dressed down. I used to tease her... 'Do you ever have any play clothes?'"

Loretta LynchPresident Obama said the US would be "better off" with Ms Lynch as attorney general

The sharply dressed lawyer of the future was already in the making.

'The triplets'

The big New York law firms were still very male and very white when she joined Cahill Gordon and Reindel in the mid-1980s.

Two other black American women were part of her cohort, and the three liked to refer to themselves as "the triplets".

One of them, Alysa Christmas Rollock, who is now a vice-president at Purdue University in Indiana, told me they used the nickname because the firm's receptionists, who knew the 250 male partners and associates by name, seemed to be "incapable of identifying us from each other, so we became the non-identical triplets".

The slight must have been - to put it at its mildest - irritating, but there seems no evidence Ms Lynch resented the racism she faced. Those we spoke to for BBC Radio Four's Profile programme said she lacked any trace of bitterness.

Loretta Lynch

Her first really high-profile case - in 1999, not long after the then President, Bill Clinton, appointed her the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York - raised just the issues that are back in the spotlight as she takes on her new job.

Abner Louima, a Haitian, had been arrested after an altercation outside a nightclub and accused of hitting a police officer.

The police later admitted the charge was false, but Mr Louima was brutally beaten.

Calm under pressure

During the trial it emerged one of the police officers involved was in a long-term relationship with a black American woman, and it was put to the court he was therefore unlikely to have violated the rights of a black man.

Alan Vinegrad, who worked with Ms Lynch on the case, remembers the way she tackled this sensitive issue head on, accusing the officer concerned of "hiding behind the colour of his girlfriend's skin".

It was high-stakes stuff - the trial team had to be escorted out of the courtroom by US marshals that day - but it was done in a "calm and measured way".

Ms Lynch's ability to stay calm stood her in good stead when she faced rough questioning during her confirmation hearings.

"Many of us looked at the treatment she received… [and] we didn't feel good about it, we did not feel there was a sense of fairness," her old friend, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, said.

"But her reaction was, 'That's OK, let's just keep our heads and eyes on the prize.' That's who she really is."

She is also - and everyone seems to agree on this - a formidably good lawyer, a "consummate professional" in the judgement of one of those who worked with her.

She will need all of those qualities if she is to restore faith in US justice.

Source: bbc.co.uk

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