Saturday, May 25, 2024

Lani Guinier, right, and Rosa Parks greet the crowd from the podium at a 1993 march on Washington, D.C. (Photo: John Mathew Smith via Flickr)

A late City Council resolution Monday honored legal scholar, civil rights champion and Cambridge resident Lani Guinier, who died Friday at the age of 71.

Though many will remember her for a 1993 nomination to join the administration of President Bill Clinton that ended in controversy, Guinier also held close ties to the Cambridge community after becoming the first woman of color to win tenure at Harvard Law School, councillors said.

“As most of us know her, it was through the work that she did at the university. But she actually worked a lot on community issues. About two decades ago, she funded a training for black parents to learn how to advocate for their children, and it is just one of many things that she did that most people don’t know about. I was very sad to see that she had passed,” said councillor E. Denise Simmons, who wrote the late resolution. “This is quite the loss.”

Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui signaled the honor at the start of Monday’s meeting, asking attendees to remember Guinier in their thoughts during a moment of silence. Before a roll call on the resolution, the mayor again offered condolences to the family, including her son Nikolas Bowie, an assistant professor of law at Harvard Law School who was an associate member last term on Cambridge’s Planning Board. (Guinier’s father attended Harvard College in 1929 as its only black student at the time; he came back to teach and serve as the first chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies, according to a remembrance posted by the law school.)

Guinier was a Radcliffe College grad in the Class of 1971. In 1993, when she was 43 and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Clinton nominated her to be assistant attorney general for civil rights. Conservatives seized upon her writings to portray her as a radical who believed in racial quotas but not in the idea of one person, one vote, and Clinton eventually withdrew her nomination. She was invited to Harvard that same year, according to obituaries in The New York Times and elsewhere, but waited until 1998 to finally return to Cambridge and Harvard to become the Bennett Boskey professor of law.

Bowie told Harvard Law Today that what Guinier hoped for most after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2013 was to continue as an educator. “Teaching meant everything to her,” Bowie said in May, as he received the same Albert M. Sacks-Paul A. Freund Award for Teaching Excellence as she had two decades earlier. But the week he received news of the award was the week she moved into hospice care at a Cambridge assisted-living facility.

Guinier worked tirelessly “to create a fairer, more equal, more inclusive country,” the council resolution said. “Her life’s work and legacy … shall continue to yield positive ripple effects for generations to come.”

The same council meeting honored Janet Axelrod, chair of the Board of Library Trustees and an activist and philanthropic organizer, who died Dec. 26 of cancer. Another death being mourned in Cambridge is Janet Belanger, longtime child care director of the city’s YWCA preschool; she died Dec. 28 after contracting Covid.