“Marching for My Convictions”: A Judge Remembers Civil Rights-Era Alabama

September 03, 2014

Young African Americans coming of age in the segregated South of the 1950s and ‘60s witnessed a brutal society on the brink of massive change. For Vanzetta Penn McPherson, who received an AAUW American Fellowship to finish her final year at Columbia Law School in 1973–74, that time was an opportunity to fight for her beliefs and be a part of the movement that would alter the course of history.

Vanzetta Penn McPherson

Vanzetta Penn McPherson

In her AAUW fellowship application, McPherson wrote, “I have been privileged to grow up in a period of our country’s history that has produced some of the most significant social innovations. And, as a bonus, I witnessed it firsthand from my home in Montgomery, Alabama.”

The Montgomery of McPherson’s youth was the nucleus of the fight for civil rights, and the movement affected the trajectory of her career and life. She described the impact that the civil rights movement had on her and her peers: “We were greatly influenced by the presence in our midst of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy. … The early school years found me marching, demonstrating, and engaging in other nonviolent protests for my then-fledgling convictions.”

McPherson received an undergraduate degree from Howard University in 1969. Her college years were marked by the campus movements and unrest that swept the nation in the late ‘60s — Howard and the rest of Washington, D.C., were particularly contentious centers of activism. After graduating from Howard, she went north to earn master’s and law degrees from Columbia University.

McPherson talked about her career plans in her fellowship application and expressed the importance of championing individual legal rights. Although she intended to go into private practice, her “interests would remain rooted in the alleviation of the social and economic ills affecting individual citizens.”

Her legal career certainly lived up to her lofty goals. Her work as a private practice attorney centered on upholding the rights of working women and African Americans. Later, she translated her passion for social justice into a distinguished career as a magistrate judge in Alabama. On the bench, she continued to fight for the rights of minorities and women: In what the HistoryMakers, an oral archive of African American history, calls “one of [her] most notable rulings,” McPherson ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in a promotion discrimination case brought by women teaching in Alabama colleges.

Even in retirement, she continues to influence discussions of important social issues through editorials in the Montgomery Advertiser. True to her promise in her AAUW application years ago, McPherson has rooted her life in social and legal reform for the people who need it most.

This post was written by AAUW archives intern Elizabeth Beckman.


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