Growing up poor had a huge impact on Barbara Arnwine. She saw much injustice committed against people of little means. She saw hunger and homelessness, and racial discrimination in many aspects. After being accepted early to Scripps College, she decided to take summer classes at another school, where she was left waiting for hours when she went to register because no one would see her. She describes the racial discrimination she encountered in summer school as blatant and awful. When she did well in classes, she received hate mail.
For Arnwine, entering law school was an afterthought. She had intended to become a teacher or a college professor and, in her senior year, had begun applying to graduate schools to pursue a doctorate in American studies and English Literature. When an African American attorney was brought in by the school to deal with a conflict involving the black studies center, he hired her as his assistant. She knew nothing about civil law, but working with the attorney on a contract dispute taught her much and piqued her interest in law. At his suggestion, she signed up just before the deadline to take the LSAT – the only African American woman and one of only a handful of women in general out of about 300 people taking the test at that location. When the dean of students at Scripps refused to write her a recommendation because she was “too ambitious,” the president of the college stepped in to handle the matter personally.
Ms. Arnwine attended law school at Duke and, after working for the Durham Legal Assistance Program, moved to Raleigh in1979 to work at the headquarters of the Legal Services of North Carolina. In 1983 she moved to Boston, where she was the executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law of the Boston Bar Association, and, in 1989, she became executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C. While there, she led the effort to secure passage of what became the Civil Rights Act of 1991. She also played a leading role in the Committee’s efforts, in conjunction with the National Commission of the Voting Rights Act, in presenting to Congress the report on which the 2006 Reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act was eventually based. She was largely responsible for the 1995 Conference on African American Women and the Law, which attracted over a thousand attendees and addressed the problem of women who face both race and gender discrimination. Following thousands of complaints of racial intimidation and disenfranchisement in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, Arnwine became a leader in The Election Protection Program, which by 2008 was one of the largest pro bono programs in the nation. She led the Lawyers’ Committee in creating the Disaster Victim’s Assistance Project after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and preventing the eviction of over 250,000 displaced families from hotels and shelters until alternative housing had been provided.
Her international advocacy of civil rights has taken her to South Africa as head of the Electoral Observers delegation (1994), to Guantanamo Bay to investigate the condition of Haitian refugees (1994), and to Beijing as head of a delegation to the Decade of Women Conference and NGO Forum, where her efforts contributed to adoption of a platform for protecting women who face multiple forms of discrimination. She has won numerous awards, including the National Bar Association’s Gertrude E. Rush Award (2011), the National Black Law Students Association's Sadie T. M. Alexander Award (2011), the Freedom’s Sisters Award (sponsored by Ford Motor Company, the Smithsonian Institution and Cincinnati Museum Center, 2009), the Keeper of the Flame Award from the Boston Lawyers’ Committee (2009), and the National Bar Association’s Equal Justice Award (1995) and C. Francis Stradford Award (2007). Ms. Arnwine views as troubling the racial denial that has always been an undercurrent in our society, the fear that has resulted from demographic change, and the corrosive economic situation that confronts blacks and Latinos. She views her biggest challenge today as trying to overcome the fragmentation of communications that permits hate radio and other channels of distortion in the press to stand in the way of those trying to tell a coherent story. Unlike in the 1960s, when people got their news from only the three major networks, today, Ms. Arnwine observes, many people listen only to those media outlets that reinforce what they already believe.