Geraldine Hines ’71 reflects on Jim Crow-era experiences and resulting political activism in Law School.
Geraldine Hines ’71 grew up in the Mississippi Delta during the Jim Crow era.
“Jim Crow meant separate schools, separate drinking fountains, separate everything,” recalled Hines, who was only 6 years old when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the “separate but equal” system of racial segregation in public schools. “It was all separate but unequal.”
As a young girl, seeing the inequities across everyday life in the South pushed Hines toward a career in law.
“The promise of Brown (v. Board of Education) brought many of us into the profession, eager to wage legal warfare in shaping its legacy,” she said. “Seeing everything that was around me, I wanted change to be made, and I wanted things to be better for people. I could see that things around me weren’t right and they needed to be made right. As a child, I decided I wanted to be part of it.”
Hines was committed to making change for the better, but she never imagined doing that from Wisconsin.
“I thought I would go to the University of Mississippi or Tulane, but neither of those schools was interested in having me as a student,” recalled Hines. “So, it was just by chance that I ended up a student in Madison.”
Hines enrolled in political science at Tougaloo College on the heels of Freedom Summer, a massive effort by civil rights activists in 1964 to integrate Mississippi’s segregated political system. Located just north of Jackson, the college was “an oasis in a sea of racial craziness.” Civil rights giants including Martin Luther King Jr. and one of Hines’s personal heroes, Fannie Lou Hamer, all made stops on the small campus throughout the 1960s.
In 1967, people from University of Wisconsin Law School came to Tougaloo to speak with students interested in pursuing a career in law.
“They met with a number of us,” said Hines, who recently reconnected with one of the Law students who organized that visit to Mississippi.
He explained to Hines that a group of students at UW Law School decided that Madison should be more open to diversity.
“I think you could count the students of color at the Law School at the time on one hand,” said Hines. “They decided, as student leaders, they were going to recruit students of color and advocate for the Law School to admit these students.”
Two decades after UW Law admitted Vel Phillips ’51, its first Black woman graduate, Hines applied and was accepted to the Law School.
“I was one of four Black students who started Law School in 1968,” said Hines.
Only two of those students would go on to graduate with the Class of 1971, Hines and Nathaniel Friends Sr., who passed away in September 2022. Hines was also among the first of the Law School’s Legal Education Opportunities (LEO) graduates, a program developed for the recruitment, retention and success of law students of color that continues to thrive today.
“It was a bit of a culture shock coming from Mississippi to Madison,” said Hines. “The college I was attending was very active in the civil rights movement, so we had contacts with white students and faculty members, but that was the extent of it. I didn’t go to classes with majority white students. I wasn’t in an environment that was majority white. It was a challenging environment for me in Madison culturally and physically that first year.”
While Hines spent her first year of Law School “sitting in the back of the class,” things “got better” her second year.
“I became politically active because Madison, at that time, had one of the most radical student bodies,” she said. “There was lots of fervor and activist ferment because of the opposition to the Vietnam War, which dovetailed with Black student activism around diversity, and I became fully engaged in that. I jumped in with both feet.”
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 in the National Guard to Madison in response to growing unrest at the university. His move prompted thousands more to strike on State Street in solidarity. (The following year, the Board of Regents approved the creation of the Department of Afro-American Studies at University of Wisconsin–Madison.)
“I wanted to succeed as a law student, but I also felt this urge to be a part of this movement for change, because back in Mississippi, the battles had not been won, they still haven’t been, but people were still actively engaged in taking on Jim Crow and Jim Crow’s vestiges,” she said. “I thought of Madison not as an escape, but an opportunity to continue the fight in a different place.”
At UW Law, Hines studied under Professor James E. Jones Jr. ’56, the Law School’s first—and at the time only—Black professor. Their relationship was close but not always smooth.
“We had a very contentious political relationship because we were of different generations,” said Hines during a recent interview with University Communications. “He would be counseling me to be more moderate in my thinking and my approach to things, and I wasn’t ready to do that. I became great friends with him, though, and I came to appreciate him immensely; he was my first mentor in the law.”
Hines’ activism in the strike did eventually come to the attention of the Law School’s administration.
“I’m not sure how that happened, but I do remember a conversation that I had with one of the deans,” she said. “I was holding a sign outside the Law building—I don’t remember exactly what it said, but it was in support of the strike—one of the deans came up to me and said something like ‘Ms. Hines, this is not what we expect of law students’ or something like that. I was taken aback at that direct challenge, but it didn’t change my outlook.”
Hines continued to believe that she was doing “exactly what I was supposed to do,” though it was at some risk to her success as a law student.
“I did participate in the strike, and I didn’t go to my classes. My participation wasn’t widely known; the fact that I wasn’t in the classes, who cared, maybe,” she chuckled. “But I let people know why I was there and what I was doing and supporting.”
After Law School, Hines sent out about 50 letters to law firms and employers across the nation.
“I didn’t get a single response from anyone,” she said. “It didn’t matter. My real goal was to do civil rights work. I didn’t land a job in that area, but I did get my start in legal services, which was just as good.”
“I thought of Madison not as an escape, but an opportunity to continue the fight in a different place.”
Hines took on a Reginald Heber Smith Fellowship in poverty law and moved to Boston; she worked first in legal aid, then as a defense and civil rights attorney.
In 2001, after 30 years of practice, she was appointed to a judgeship in the Massachusetts Superior Court. After 13 years, she was appointed to fill a vacancy on the state’s appeals court. And just 18 months later, she was appointed to the Supreme Court by then Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, becoming the first African American woman to hold that position. She retired in 2017.
In 2015, Hines received the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumni Award. Hines’ achievements are on display at Alumni Park on the UW–Madison campus, which boasts more than 50 museum-quality outdoor exhibits. More than 120 university alumni are honored and celebrated there.