This interview was conducted over email with H. Timothy Lovelace Jr., the John Hope Franklin Research Scholar and Professor of Law at the Duke Law School by Gargi Mahadeshwar, a first-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute.
How did your interest in the civil rights movement develop?
I grew up in a family and community deeply dedicated to social justice. My mother helped to desegregate public schools in my hometown. My father was a member of the local branch of the NAACP. The pastor of my home church was the president of that branch of the NAACP. Civil rights was all around me growing up, and I’ve been passionate about the fight for justice since I was a child. I count myself blessed to now have the opportunity to teach about social change, work for social change, and write about those who paved a way for me and so many others.
What is the role of interdisciplinarity in your work?
I’m a legal historian of the civil rights movement. Much of my scholarship explores how U.S. civil rights activists and lawyers helped to transform international human rights law. I rely on historical methods to illustrate how people have reshaped law over time. My research, in turn, requires that I analyze legal doctrine and spend significant time in civil rights archives, U.S. and foreign government libraries, and U.N. depositories.
What is the relationship between civil rights and human rights?
My forthcoming book, “The World is on Our Side: the U.S. and the U.N. Race Convention,” offers one example of this relationship. The United Nations Race Convention, the world’s most comprehensive treaty on race, contains many provisions that mirror U.S. civil rights law and policy. This is not an accident. In 1964, as the U.N. was drafting the Race Convention, the U.S. was drafting the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the primary drafters of the Race Convention were U.S. lawyers who also helped to draft the Civil Rights Act. In the book, I explore the concept of legal transplantation and examine the implications of this project on today’s movements for racial justice.
What is a transformative experience you’ve had or story you’ve come across?
Julian Bond was my professor when I was a student at the University of Virginia. Professor Bond was Chairman of the NAACP’s Board, but he had come to national prominence as a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Professor Bond was our civil rights icon, and I was fortunate enough to become one of his mentees.
During my graduate school research, I found several archival documents in the SNCC papers which showed that in 1964 SNCC conducted protests during a U.N. visit to Atlanta. I was puzzled. Why would U.N. officials visit Atlanta in 1964 and why would SNCC be interested in U.N. affairs? I soon contacted Professor Bond. He remembered the protests, and we chatted at length about his memories. He encouraged me to conduct more research on the U.N.’s interest in Atlanta, and he even connected me with other SNCC activists who remembered the protests. In the course of my research and conversations, I learned that U.N. officials had visited Atlanta in 1964, because a civil rights lawyer and one of the primary drafters of the U.N. Race Convention had invited his colleagues to study race relations there. Atlanta was then nicknamed “the city too busy to hate.” The civil rights lawyer believed that Atlanta could serve as a global model for desegregation. This was an eye-opening moment for me. I began to see fresh connections between the civil rights movement and international human rights lawmaking. Professor Bond’s encouragement proved to be pivotal in my academic career. Our conversations and his assistance inspired my first major scholarly article and now serves as the foundation for my forthcoming book. I’m eternally grateful.
Has John Hope Franklin’s life and scholarship influenced your work?
John Hope Franklin was a groundbreaking historian committed to the highest standards of excellence. He joined the Duke faculty in the early 1980s, and he became a Professor of Legal History at Duke Law several years later. I now serve as the John Hope Franklin Scholar at Duke Law, and so I stand on Dr. Franklin’s shoulders.
Dr. Franklin worked with Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP during the Brown v. Board of Education litigation and helped the NAACP develop the legislative history of the Fourteenth Amendment. His work proved to be invaluable in winning this landmark case. Nearly a half century later, Dr. Franklin was still actively engaged in legal and social change. He provided expert testimony during the Grutter v. Bollinger litigation, seeking to protect diversity on college campuses. I teach John Hope Franklin’s scholarship, but I also teach about John Hope Franklin’s activism. Many students attend law school because they want to become a litigator in the mold of Thurgood Marshall. To be sure, there was only one Thurgood Marshall, but I stress to my students that social movements need more than litigators to be successful. As watershed cases like Brown and Grutter have demonstrated, litigators often rely on academic researchers to help make their case. Social movements need many different types of people with many different skillsets to advance the cause of equality. The life and legacy of John Hope Franklin offer us a powerful way to appreciate this insight.
What do you hope people will take away from your talk?
The talk, “Martin, the Movement, and the World of Comparative Law,” will explore Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s interest in comparative law and politics. I hope to advance three major points. First, I’ll underscore that the U.S. civil rights movement was never simply a domestic movement; it was also a global movement. Second, I’ll emphasize that movement activists, many of whom had no formal legal training, were involved in rich, transnational conversations about the power of law in ending white supremacy. Finally, I hope to invite a broad conversation about the role of the Southern wing of the movement in law reform at home and abroad. The U.S. South has historically been depicted as a region that was insular, parochial, and anything but a space critical to international legal transformation. A closer examination of history shows us something different. As civil rights activists were remaking the U.S. South, they also remade their country and indeed the world forever.
Please join us for the Rights and the Humanities annual lecture on Tuesday, February 23 at 5:30PM. Register in advance for this event here.
H. Timothy Lovelace, Jr., a noted legal historian of the civil rights movement, joined the Duke Law faculty in June 2020 from Indiana University where he was a professor of law at the Maurer School of Law and affiliated faculty in the Department of History. Lovelace’s work examines how the civil rights movement in the United States helped to shape international human rights law. He has published articles in journals including the Law and History Review, American Journal of Legal History, and the Journal of American History, and his article, “William Worthy’s Passport,” was selected for the 2015 Law & Humanities Interdisciplinary Junior Scholar Workshop. His forthcoming book, The World is on Our Side: The U.S. and the U.N. Race Convention (Cambridge University Press), examines how U.S. civil rights politics shaped the development of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.