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Home » Clarion » 2011 » January 2011 » Life/Work: Searching for Equality

Life/Work: Searching for Equality


Associate Professor of Constitutional Law & Criminal Justice, John Jay College
MA, University of Pennsylvania
JD, St. Louis University

Gloria J. Browne-Marshall traces racism’s legal history
06 Gloria Browne-Marshall New-Image3.jpg

Gloria J. Browne-Marshall served as a civil rights attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Southern Poverty Law Center until 2002, when she joined the faculty at John Jay. In her work, Browne-Marshall explores how the law has served as both a tool of oppression and a shield for the vulnerable. She is the author of three books, including Race, Law and American Society (Routledge, 2007), which Derrick Bell, in his foreword, describes as “compelling,” and which Cornell West calls “a gem.”

The book analyzes key court cases since 1607 that created this country’s racial caste system, while highlighting the role of African Americans in pushing the courts toward a more expansive and inclusive vision of freedom and equality. Browne-Marshall has also written five plays, which often intertwine, in a more personal way, with issues that emerge from her scholarship.


When I worked for the NAACP, I spent a lot of time in motel rooms in remote towns in Georgia and Alabama. It gave me the chance to consider how long the search for equal rights in the law had been going on. My research into old cases eventually took me back as far as the 1600s. Real people put themselves in harm’s way and most were very unsuccessful in their attempt to make change under the law. But, I feel we owe it to them to know our history and their part in it. That’s essential if we want to have a better understanding of how we got where we are today, and where we might want to go in the future.


Mary Morgan. She escaped her enslavement and started a new life in Pennsylvania as a free person. Several years later a slave catcher by the name of Edward Prigg abducts her and her free-born children to return them back into slavery. The community rallied to Mary’s support and Prigg was convicted of violating a Pennsylvania anti-slavery statute. However, the US Supreme Court subsequently ruled in 1842 that Prigg’s actions were constitutionally protected.

I’m researching black women and the law. Black women like Mary Morgan have contributed so much to the struggle for freedom under law and are nameless, for the most part.

I can have disparate research interests and follow through on those interests. In many universities today you have to have this narrow specialization and that’s it. Also, the challenge of teaching constitutional law to a student body as diverse as CUNY’s is just amazing and I enjoy it so much. We have people who come from countries that don’t have a functioning legal system or who come from countries where the legal system is totally different.

James Baldwin, a civil rights activist whose novels and plays really spoke to the general public about what was at stake. And Charles Hamilton Houston, the architect of the successful legal struggle to dismantle Jim Crow.

I write plays to explore moments of conflict when human beings have to choose to go one way or the other, and I examine that struggle from the perspectives of class, race and gender. What are the choices we make, and how do we live with those choices?

My Juilliard is about the tension between two musicians – and family members. One is a former child prodigy who was prevented from living her dream of becoming a concert pianist. The other is her granddaughter, who has both a gift for music and the opportunity to attend the Juilliard School – but is oblivious to the struggles that created this opportunity. Many women are resentful of younger women coming up through the ranks. We need to discuss generational obstacles in order to better respect each other’s struggles.

I don’t believe in a post-race America, I believe in an America that needs to know its history so that it can better understand why it wants to believe in a post-race America. Racism is a chronic condition like diabetes or high blood pressure. We shouldn’t close our eyes and try to turn away – if it’s not monitored and understood and care is not given, then it can destroy the host.

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