Born in the Mississippi Delta on October 29, 1947, Geraldine Hines knew early on she’d make a career of social justice lawyering. “Seeing what happened to my parents, what happened to people around me, the indignities we all faced — having to enter through the back door and attend separate schools, not being able to drink from the water fountain — that doesn’t sit easy with your spirit.”
Hines was only six years old when the US Supreme Court made the “separate but equal” system of racial segregation in public schools unlawful. She says the Court’s ruling on Brown v. Board of Education emboldened and inspired a generation of young lawyers: “The promise of Brown brought many of us into the profession, eager to wage legal warfare in shaping its legacy.”
If Brown raised hopes for some, it unleashed rage in others. Throughout Hines’s childhood, white segregationist terrorism against black Mississippians — in the form of beatings, bombings, jailings, arson, and murder — went unpunished. The brutal slaying of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 took place not far from Hines’s hometown. Civil rights activist Medgar Evers was gunned down in his driveway in Jackson in 1963. And weeks before Hines left for college, investigators searched swamps and rivers for the bodies of three Freedom Summer volunteers, murdered for registering voters. The search turned up eight additional murdered black bodies whose deaths had gone uninvestigated.
Hines enrolled in political science at Tougaloo College on the heels of Freedom Summer, a massive effort by civil rights activists to integrate Mississippi’s segregated political system. She calls the school, located just north of Jackson, “an oasis in a sea of racial craziness.” Civil rights giants like Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and one of Hines’s personal heroes, Fannie Lou Hamer, all made stops on the small campus throughout the 1960s.
Voting rights abuses against African Americans persisted, with state officials using voting taxes, literacy tests, and violence to intimidate voters. Hines was a student at Tougaloo, and not quite 18, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965. Its passage made a difference in Mississippi, which saw a dramatic increase in voter turnout among blacks — from 6 percent in 1964 to 59 percent in 1969.
At UW Law School, Hines became involved with efforts by the Black Student Alliance to organize class boycotts and a strike. In part, they were calling for a new black studies department and active recruitment of black faculty and students. Support for these demands swelled, and in February 1969, Wisconsin’s governor called out the National Guard to control it. His move prompted thousands more strikers to State Street in solidarity. The following year, the Board of Regents approved the creation of the Department of Afro-American Studies at UW–Madison.
Two decades after UW Law School admitted Vel Phillips, its first black woman graduate, Hines arrived in Madison to attend law school. By 1971, Hines was one of only two African American graduates in her class. But she was also among the first of the Law School’s LEO graduates, a program developed for the recruitment, retention, and success of law students of color that thrives today.
Hines began working as a public defender with Roxbury Defender’s Committee in Massachusetts.
Hines started at the Center for Law and Education, based at Harvard University, to litigate civil rights violations in education.
Hines co-founded New England’s first private firm run by women of color.
Hines’s judicial career began in Massachusetts Superior Court in 2001, and in 2013, she was named to serve on the state appeals court. The following year, she made history as the first woman of color appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in that court’s 322-year history.
With every civil rights success comes backlash, Hines says. Notably, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court ruled a portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional. Voting rights advocates like Hines, who witnessed black voter suppression up close, warn that the decision turns back the clock on justice. “If you watched the news reports carefully, you know that within hours of the decision, the state of Alabama swung into action, closing polling places in mostly minority communities.”
Hines takes her historic seat on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
Justices in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, like all judges in the state, hold office until the mandatory retirement age of 70. Hines turns 70 in 2017, and she says she’s ready for the next generation of civil rights activists to bring fresh ideas and energy to the movement. She also looks forward to the chance to pause and reflect. “This job is demanding, and I’m tired. I plan on walking out of here standing up straight.”