In a visit to Greensboro to conclude Elon Law's 2018-19 Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series, former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch reminded her audience that "government is more than who the president is."
From modest beginnings in Greensboro to serving her nation as U.S. Attorney General, throughout life, Loretta Lynch has witnessed the ebb and flow of political and social equality for people of all backgrounds.
Voting rights. Due process in the criminal justice system. The right of members in the LGBT community to marry. Yet she said every expansion of civil rights in the United States requires constant vigilance and protection from efforts to rescind those liberties.
“We’ve never had a straight line in terms of progress and equality,” Lynch said on Feb. 28, 2019, at Elon Law in downtown Greensboro. “We make great leaps, and then we slide back.”
Lynch’s visit to Elon Law concluded the 2018-19 Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series presented by the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation. In a crowded law library, where she was joined by family and lifelong friends, the former U.S. Attorney General for the final years of the Obama Administration echoed a refrain often cited by her boss – “we are who we’ve been waiting for.”
“Government is more than who the president is,” Lynch said. “Government is all of us. Every single one of us. And so as we work through what I know are really challenging times, what are really hard times, think that not only have we been there before, but we persevered.”
Lynch cited the history made in Greensboro, North Carolina, when four N.C. A&T students sparked the sit-in movement during the Jim Crow era by refusing to leave their seats at a whites-only Woolworth’s counter. That movement was started by ordinary students, she said, which helped lead to passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964.
“I’ve carried the lessons of Greensboro and of North Carolina, and the values they embody, with me,” she said.
Lynch then pointed to legislative efforts in North Carolina to create gerrymandered districts and enact voter ID laws. She also criticized efforts by North Carolina state lawmakers in recent years to enact what was known as the “bathroom bill,” a law that limited public restroom usage to facilities that matched assigned gender at birth.
“When we actively withhold the protections of the law, we are saying to our LGBT friends and family members, we are saying to our children who are dealing with this issue, that ‘we do not value you,’” Lynch said. “‘We will not step in when people try to harm you based on nothing more than who you intrinsically are.’”
Our most deeply held values must always inform our laws, Lynch said. By the laws of a society, you know that society. “And what, therefore, did this law say about us?” she said. “Our history shows us the danger of denying that protection to marginalized groups. We’ve been down that road before.”
The leadership lecture took two forms. In opening the program, Lynch delivered a speech on "the lessons of Greensboro" before spending the second half of her visit fielding audience questions in a conversation moderated by Elon Law Assistant Professor Patricia Perkins.
Lynch took a moment during her presentation to thank the university and Elon Law Dean Luke Bierman for hosting her and her family, and to praise the law school for the caliber of the students with whom she had met throughout the day.
“Dean Bierman, I have received the most wonderful welcome here this afternoon. It has been truly amazing,” Lynch said. “I met with some of your students earlier today and I had a chance to meet with some of them again at tonight’s reception. They represent you so well and I share your pride in them. You are the future of our profession and I am now reassured.”
Prior to her service as U.S. Attorney General, where she led high-profile investigations such as the church shooting in Charleston and the role of Chicago police in the death of Laquan McDonald, Lynch had twice been appointed head of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, under both President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama.
While leading that office, she became known for the civil rights conviction of two Brooklyn police officers who brutally assaulted Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. In private practice, the Harvard University and Harvard Law graduate served as a volunteer legal advisor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, established to prosecute those responsible for human rights violations in the 1994 genocide in that nation.
The Greensboro native is the daughter of a school librarian and fourth-generation Baptist minister. She has shared that she was inspired at a young age by stories about her grandfather, a sharecropper in the 1930s, who helped members of his community who had no recourse under the Jim Crow system.
The Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series presented by The Joseph M. Bryan Foundation is an integral part of Elon Law’s commitment to learning, lawyering and leadership. Endowed through a generous gift from The Joseph M. Bryan Foundation of Greensboro, N.C., the series brings accomplished leaders from a variety of disciplines to Elon to share their experiences and perspectives with students and faculty.
Lynch spoke earlier in the afternoon with Elon Law Leadership, Business, and Advocacy Fellows, in addition to participating in media interviews. She also met briefly with sorority sisters from Delta Sigma Theta, Inc.
In introducing Lynch at the leadership lecture, the Hon. Henry E. Frye, a retired chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court and a family friend, noted how the former attorney general’s career aligns with the work of the American Judicature Society. The AJS, of which Frye is a board member, aims to secure and promote an independent and qualified judiciary and a fair system of justice.
“It is my privilege and pleasure to tell you, in my opinion, our speaker tonight has been in the trenches, not just talking, but acting in accord with that mission,” Frye said. “She believes in a qualified judiciary and a fair system of justice – but her actions speak louder than words.”