Equality Through Law: A Civil Rights Trailblazer Reminisces
By Traci Mysliwiec
"As an elder getting off the stage, I say to [younger generations], if you need me, put up the bat signal and I'll come back. But here's the baton" - Eva Jefferson Paterson
Eva Jefferson Paterson addressing a crowd in May 1970. Image: Courtesy of University Archives / Northwestern University
After changing the world and creating equality through law, Eva Paterson is set to retire in 2022.
If you’ve been fortunate enough to spend time around civil rights champion Eva Jefferson Paterson, you’ve likely gotten a glimpse of the gleam in her eyes or heard the infectious joy in her laugh. For someone who has fearlessly stood up to powerful people — to entire power structures — repeatedly, said unequivocally “No, that is unacceptable,” and forced them to change, she still has a delightfully light and warm demeanor. Now in her 70s, Paterson was slaying dragons before we even knew where the dragons were who needed to be slayed.
You were brave and bold before many Black women knew how to do that. And before many Black women knew they could do that." — Yolanda Jackson
After using her legal mastery to strengthen protections and right wrongs for others the last 50 years, Paterson has announced she’ll soon be taking a step back and relaxing into retirement. When she looked back on her storied career recently with Yolanda Jackson, they talked about her dedication to the 14th Amendment, implicit bias, her confidence in next generations, and much more. Paterson also reminisced about how she found herself in the midst of notable events in history and explained why she refers to herself as the ‘chocolate female Forrest Gump.’ (Watch the full interview here. Clips of some topics are below.)
“We're having a conversation today, not because of how you shaped and reshaped the legal profession, not because of the many landmark cases that you worked on, but because you have announced that you're retiring in 2022," said Jackson, Executive Director and General Counsel of the Bar Association of San Francisco and Executive Director of the Justice and Diversity Center. “You were brave and bold before many Black women knew how to do that. And before many Black women knew they could do that. You've inspired many, including myself.”
Even though she still exudes a youthful energy some even decades younger find envious, Paterson is on the verge of laying down her sword and retiring. A tireless advocate for equality, she has taken Oakland’s Police Department to task on reform and San Francisco’s Fire Department on their discriminatory policies, protecting vulnerable people and expanding access for all.
Eva showed us how to use the law to strengthen and build equality when existing structures to protect our people are absent. By using the law to challenge discriminatory policies, confront public agencies, or improve protections for battered women, Eva has transformed the legal landscape and impacted countless lives." — Jane Kim
“After many, many years of hard work, sacrifice, creativity, vision, you're retiring from the Equal Justice Society, which you created and we wanted to pay homage to what you've meant to the Bay Area legal community,” Jackson said. “Your law school experiences and your legal career did lead to you changing the world, creating equality through the law, fighting for those who could not fight for themselves, and being the voice of those who could not use their own.”
Discussing a few of the “interesting times” she found herself in along the way, she explains how she landed there. From debating Vice President Spiro Agnew (above), stopping angry students from burning a campus building (below), getting tear gassed and her own silent protest remaining seated at a National Prayer Breakfast when President Richard Nixon arrived, Paterson explains what happened.
“If you saw the movie Forrest Gump, he popped up at different times in history that turned out to be amazing. I've just been in interesting places at interesting times. I sometimes feel like I have magic dust sprinkled over me. So that's why I call myself the female chocolate Forrest Gump," Paterson explained with a laugh.
Unlike Gump, to reduce Paterson’s impact down to merely being in the right places at the right times, you’d miss the precision with which she crafts her arguments or the thoughtful approach she takes in those moments. In the clip below, Paterson says the Papa Charlie case illustrates a valuable lesson to all lawyers, "Trust your instincts."
While Paterson contemplates what comes next for her personally, she knows there are a number of talented people locally ready to lead the charge. She fondly referred to racial justice advocate and BART Board President Lateefah Simon as ‘my play daughter’ when she spoke about meeting with younger activists.
“I don't need to tell young people what to do. They're coming into a really different world. They may have different ways of doing things. Think about what they've done about anti-gun violence, the environment. They'll be just fine,” Paterson said. “As an elder getting off the stage, I say to them, if you need me, put up the bat signal and I'll come back. But here's the baton.”
Many, like Simon and Paterson's fellow University of California, Berkeley, School of Law graduate Jane Kim, have already been doing the work. "Eva showed us how to use the law to strengthen and build equality when existing structures to protect our people are absent," said Kim, a former San Francisco Supervisor and current Fellow at the Sanders Institute. "By using the law to challenge discriminatory policies, confront public agencies, or improve protections for battered women, Eva has transformed the legal landscape and impacted countless lives."
A veteran coalition builder, she has developed and advocated for California ballot initiatives, including campaigns against the death penalty, juvenile incarceration and discrimination. Following law school, she worked for the Legal Aid Society of Alameda County and co-founded A Safe Place, a shelter for battered women in Oakland.
Paterson has a long history with BASF and JDC, having helped shape the volunteer legal services programs and serving on the Board. She was also the keynote speaker at last year’s 16th Annual Barristers Club Judges Reception.
"I want to thank you for leading our volunteer legal services programs foundation many years ago,” Jackson said. “We thank you for coming to help us change lives in the way that we were able to do it.”
As the interview closed, Jackson expressed how much Paterson’s accomplishments have meant to her and wished Paterson well in retirement.
“I want to emphasize to you how good you've been for our profession, how good you've been for civil rights, how good you have been for equal justice. And I hope and pray that retirement is as good to you as you have been to us and those of us who are still in this fight every day,” Jackson said. “I know your retirement doesn't happen until next year, but I will not lose your number because I may need to call you and say ‘what would Eva do?’ I hope you are incredibly proud of your legal career because we are incredibly proud of you.”
One of the consequences of Paterson’s focus on civil rights is that for her entire working career she worked at organizations without robust retirement programs. The San Francisco Foundation is helping to raise funds to support Eva Paterson during her retirement. If you are interested in more information, please contact Stephanie Dustman at firstname.lastname@example.org.