Tomiko Brown-Nagin Brings New Perspective to History of Civil Rights
The arc of Tomiko Brown-Nagin’s career as a scholar began as a young girl listening to her father’s stories about attending the segregated schools of Edgefield County, South Carolina, the home of Strom Thurmond and a host of other prominent southern politicians who at the time were committed to segregation. Her father’s experiences stirred in her a lifelong interest in the issues of education, equality, and race, and accounts for her engagement with them as a lawyer and a professor.
Brown-Nagin stayed true to that early vision. Now Professor of Law and History and F. Palmer Weber Research Professor in Civil Liberties and Human Rights at Virginia, Brown-Nagin took a doctorate in history from Duke and a law degree from Yale, where she was an editor of the Yale Law Journal. She clerked for Judge Robert L. Carter of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and Judge Jane Roth of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. After holding the Charles Hamilton Houston fellowship at Harvard Law School and a Golieb legal history fellowship at NYU, Brown-Nagin entered private practice as a litigation associate at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in New York and then served as an associate professor of law and history at Washington University in St. Louis.
Brown-Nagin credits Judge Carter as an inspiration for her forthcoming book, Black Ambivalence about Legal Liberalism: A Pragmatically Conservative Path to Civil Rights, Atlanta, 1895–1979. Carter was a member of the NAACP team that argued Brown, but later became a critic of the NAACP’s strategies, including those he had pursued himself. His willingness to criticize the organization in which he became one of the pre-eminent civil rights lawyers of his generation impressed Brown-Nagin. As a self-described “child of Brown” who fully appreciates its emblematic importance to the civil rights movement, she, too, chooses to honor it by bringing a critical perspective to the complex social and political environment surrounding that landmark decision and the NAACP’s entire campaign for civil rights. Brown-Nagin’s book asks what the narrative of the civil rights movement looks like “if we consider the NAACP’s campaign from the bottom-up, from the perspective of the local people who were its intended beneficiaries and the local lawyers and activists who were tasked with implementing the Supreme Court’s civil rights precedents.” She challenges the “myth of consensus” that surrounds the NAACP’s campaign by uncovering dissent and ambivalence about it within the African-American community at the grass-roots level.
In the process she has received criticism from some quarters. “Some people consider it heresy to question received wisdom about Brown or the NAACP lawyers on the theory that they did something great, which of course, I agree they did. But I also think it important that we study the NAACP’s campaign carefully and uncover the social history surrounding it in all of its nuances. Doing so is true to an intellectual tradition personified by Judge Carter.”
Professor Anne Coughlin, chair of the Law School’s Tenured Appointments Committee, which recommended that the Law School hire Brown-Nagin, said she was recruited by several top law schools.
“Her ongoing research on the desegregation of the Atlanta schools is substantial and significant, giving original insights into the conflicts that developed between and among national litigation groups and the communities they aimed to represent,” Coughlin said. “Even at this early stage, her book manuscript is a very powerful read.
“There is no doubt that she is going to be one of the leading historians on race and education,” she added. “We were incredibly fortunate that Professor Brown-Nagin chose to come to U.Va.”
Coughlin also credits Brown-Nagin’s work as a litigator before and during the time she was becoming a scholar. “Appreciating how the law works on the ground enriches both her scholarship and her teaching,” said Coughlin, noting that in serving as a visiting professor during the 2004–2005 academic year, Brown-Nagin taught classes on the law and social movements and on education policy. “I’ve served on Appointments for several years. I’ve talked to students about recruiting visiting professors on many occasions, and I’ve never seen students more enthusiastic about recruiting a visitor than they were about Tomiko Brown-Nagin.”
In turn, Brown-Nagin enjoyed her year as a visitor. “I was really struck not only by the law school’s intellectual energy, but also by its civility. It seems to be a very healthy environment in which to pursue scholarship and teach.”
But the single most important factor that attracted Brown-Nagin to Virginia is its strength in legal history, both at the Law School and on the Grounds. “There are few law schools that can compete with U.Va.,” she said, “particularly in civil rights history. I’m really excited about joining such an esteemed group of colleagues.”