While D.C. might not have a full voting member in Congress, it certainly has a dynamic advocate and civil rights leader in Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. She has been a champion for the almost 700,000 residents in the District for 30 years in Congress. As a third-generation Washingtonian, Congresswoman Norton has been a part of the lifelong struggle for universal human and civil rights. One of the issues she unrelentingly works on is the denial of full voting rights for D.C. residents, the majority of whom are Black and brown. The lack of D.C. statehood is an egregious example of ongoing voter suppression happening in our country today.
Congresswoman Norton came to Congress already a civil rights and feminist leader. As a student at Antioch College, she led her local NAACP chapter and engaged in local civil rights demonstrations. While in law school at Yale, she traveled to Mississippi with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to use her First Amendment rights to confront racial segregation. She once wrote about the experience saying “We demanded our rights in the streets, at lunch counters, and at other public places in nonviolent confrontations wherever power could be challenged. Power presented itself as outright racial segregation in the South, and as unavoidable racial discrimination in the North. Our most effective ammunition were demonstrations and other forms of activism. We were beholden to the First Amendment to make our case.”
Coming out of law school, she volunteered as legal counsel for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, who challenged the Mississippi Democrats’ practice of blocking Black political participation.
In 1965, she was hired by the national ACLU. Soon after, she helped bring a landmark civil liberties case, Carroll v. Town of Princess Anne, which would lead to her arguing before the Supreme Court at just 31 years old. The ACLU’s client, the National States’ Rights Party, called themselves a white supremacist organization and were barred from holding a rally in Maryland. Reflecting back on the case years later, she said, “I defended the First Amendment, and you seldom get to defend the First Amendment by defending people you like ... You don't know whether the First Amendment is alive and well until it is tested by people with despicable ideas.”
She’s also well known for her women’s rights advocacy. Working as Assistant Legal Director at the ACLU, in 1970 she represented a group of 46 female employees of Newsweek when only men were allowed to be reporters and the women were only allowed to be researchers. Newsweek settled shortly after they filed suit, paving the way for women to be reporters at Newsweek and across the industry.
In her role as the head of the New York City Human Rights Commission, she worked to raise awareness of the application of the Civil Rights Act to sex discrimination and held the first hearings on discrimination against women. She was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to be the first female chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She became a tenured professor of Law at Georgetown University before being elected to Congress in 1990, where she’s serving her 15th term.
“I continue to value the indispensable work of the ACLU, particularly today as a Member of Congress. Those fighting to defend civil liberties and freedom in the face of ongoing attacks continue to look to the leadership of the ACLU.” - Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton
On November 8, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton will receive the Arthur B. Spitzer Lifetime Achievement Award during our Bill of Rights Celebration for demonstrating a deep and enduring commitment to civil liberties over the course of her lifetime.
Make sure you RSVP for the Bill of Rights Celebration on Monday, November 8, as we celebrate our 60th anniversary and honor Congresswoman Norton and other outstanding people in our community who fight to advance civil liberties and rights.