Law Professor Follows His Late Friend in Directing Civil-Rights Center

U. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Theodore M. (Ted) Shaw
June 16, 2014

How to not give up. Theodore M. (Ted) Shaw will model that attitude for fellow legal educators and law students, beginning in July, as director of the Center for Civil Rights at the law school of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"It seems to me we have no choice," he says from New York, where he is a professor of professional practice in law at Columbia University. "There are reasons to be discouraged, but if we give up, we may as well lie down and die."

Mr. Shaw, who lived in a Bronx housing project during his childhood, has had a career that should galvanize law students interested in pressing on. Now 59, he has often testified before Congress and state and local legislatures, and has argued on many occasions before the U.S. Supreme Court and federal appeals courts. He has litigated cases involving education, voting rights, housing discrimination, capital punishment, and other issues in trial courts. He also helped draft the affirmative-action admissions policies at the University of Michigan’s law school, which the Supreme Court upheld in 2003, and intervened in support of the university’s undergraduate admissions policy, which the court ruled unconstitutional.

Through a succession of adverse rulings, "this Supreme Court has made it almost impossible to address these issues," he says ruefully. "So the remedies aren’t going to be the same. We have to work on contemporary remedies."

After 23 years of working with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, including as its director-counsel and president from 2004 to 2008, and law-teaching stints throughout his career in litigation and advocacy, he says he was lured to Chapel Hill by a combination of legal calling and friendship: "North Carolina is a bellwether state when it comes to civil rights."

That is true particularly now, he says, as elected officials there "have pursued policies that many people think are backward-looking," such as taking steps that critics have said will result in the suppression of African-American and Latino voting.

Also of interest to him, Mr. Shaw says, are "issues of race and attendant issues of poverty." Among his first priorities at North Carolina will be to pursue collaborations with the law school’s Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity.

The personal draw was twofold. The school’s dean of law, John Charles Boger, worked with Mr. Shaw long ago at the NAACP, and "he’s been trying to lure me down to UNC for years," says Mr. Shaw.

Mr. Boger calls Mr. Shaw one of his generation’s finest civil-rights leaders, whose lifelong response to discrimination "has not been one of bitterness or anger but, instead, an almost spiritual devotion to making real change happen."

What’s more, says Mr. Boger, Mr. Shaw cooperates with all parties of good will, "working across racial, political, and socioeconomic lines with ease"—so much so that he has the ear of "virtually everyone in the civil-rights and governmental arena—the president, the attorney general, Supreme Court justices, governors, mayors, Congressional leaders."

The civil-rights center’s new director also received encouragement to go to North Carolina from Julius L. Chambers, whom Mr. Shaw describes as his mentor and friend since their days together at the NAACP. A legendary figure in civil-rights legal causes, Mr. Chambers founded the center in 2001 and was its only previous director. He died last year, but in 2010, after the onset of his final illness led him to step down from the directorship, he urged Mr. Shaw to succeed him. "Julius told me it was something he very much wanted to have happen," says Mr. Shaw.

Indeed, Mr. Shaw will take up two appointments at Chapel Hill; the other one is as the first holder of an endowed chair named for his late comrade.

But he hastens to add that he cannot merely mimic his friend’s approach: "This is a different time now," he says. Mr. Chambers fought against school segregation, employment discrimination, and other wrongs that remain extant. Mr. Shaw says he believes that "litigation can change things in the moment, but unless people on the ground embrace those changes, the impact of litigation is going to be ephemeral."

He echoes a sentiment of Mr. Chambers when he says that he has become more and more aware that the quest for equity in American life is not the work of just one lifetime or generation: "I came to a point where I realized that it was important to connect again with the generation of people who will take the baton."