By Robert Stitt
Death stalks all of us; it is said that the journey to the grave starts with our first breath. As such, the most any of us can ask for in this life is to die doing what we love. Jacqueline Berrien, President Obama’s chairwoman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, did just that. Berrien had cancer and fell ill while participating in the N.A.A.C.P.’s Journey for Justice march. If you have any doubts, consider the words of her husband, Peter M. Williams, the executive vice president for programs for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, “Her last act was doing what she loved: civil rights.”
Berrien was no stranger to civil rights challenges. She lived them, lived through them, and fought to put and end to them. She was a graduate of Harvard Law School and was the editor of The Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. According to the NY Times, she clerked for a federal judge and held other legal positions in the civil rights community until, in 1994, she became an associate director-counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, focusing on voting rights and school desegregation litigation. In addition to her work in the marketplace, Berrien taught at Harvard Law School and New York Law School. Michelle Obama lauded her “leadership and passion for ensuring everyone gets a fair chance to succeed in the workplace.”
One of the things that set Berrien apart was her ability to look into the future and work toward a better tomorrow. While many took a short-sighted, action-now approach, she wanted to ensure that the proper foundation was laid. She also took her actions very personally. In a 2011 interview, she said it like this: “Will the workplace be more inclusive and discrimination less common when my children, my godchildren, or my nieces and nephews enter it?…Our ultimate success will manifest in decades. It will be measured by how different life is for someone who is a child today.”
During Berrien’s tenure at the EEOC, she fought to protect discriminated peoples from bias on the basis of ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disabilities and religious beliefs. She leaves behind some large shoes.