Emory Law taps civil rights scholar as first John Lewis chair

Darren Hutchinson is the first person to take the John Lewis Chair for Civil Rights and Social Justice at Emory University School of Law.
Darren Hutchinson is the first person to take the John Lewis Chair for Civil Rights and Social Justice at Emory University School of Law.

Credit: Emory University

Credit: Emory University

Darren Hutchinson will focus on civil rights, social justice

When Darren Hutchinson was interviewing in January with the Emory University School of Law to become the inaugural John Lewis Chair for Civil Rights and Social Justice, he couldn’t help but think of recent events in Atlanta.

The city had been the nation’s political hotbed with a contentious presidential election and a nationally watched pair of senatorial runoffs. It was recovering from a series of protests over the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks.

“This is a very momentous occasion,” said Hutchinson, who holds the Raymond & Miriam Ehrlich Eminent Scholar Chair at the Levin College of Law at the University of Florida. “And as a lawyer, that was a huge, incredible story of civil rights unfolding right in front of us. This is the biggest opportunity I have ever had in my life to do civil rights work.”

Emory Law named Hutchinson today to the position named for one of Atlanta’s most luminous civil rights leaders, Congressman John Lewis.

“As our nation’s communities continue to grapple with the racism and social and civil justice issues Congressman Lewis dedicated his life to solving, it seems especially fitting to announce Professor Hutchinson’s appointment to our faculty,” said Emory Law Dean Mary Anne Bobinski.

She said the university looks forward to helping Hutchinson create a center for research, teaching, thought and influence in the fields of civil rights and social justice.

Here are five things to know about Hutchinson and the chair.

How was the John Lewis Chair for Civil Rights and Social Justice founded?

An anonymous gift of $1.5 million in 2015 as a tribute to Lewis, plus $500,000 raised by the university is funding the position.

U.S. Rep. and Civil Rights leader John Lewis was the keynote speaker at Emory University's 2014 spring commencement, Emory's 169th. 15,000 people were expected to attend. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
U.S. Rep. and Civil Rights leader John Lewis was the keynote speaker at Emory University's 2014 spring commencement, Emory's 169th. 15,000 people were expected to attend. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

“Doing this work in the name of John Lewis, a legendary civil rights hero, is deeply inspiring and humbling,” Hutchinson said.

How does Hutchinson relate to Lewis’ legacy?

Hutchinson was born and raised in what he called a “very Southern experience,” in North Florida the same year that Martin Luther King was killed. His parents, he said, were victims of Jim Crow.

“In many ways, I see myself as similar to John Lewis,” said Hutchinson, who never met him. Lewis died last year.

“I was born in 1968, so I got some of the benefits of the civil rights movement, but not all of them. My entire life, I have been fighting for change. John Lewis represented consistency and not stopping. If I could do a fraction of what he did, I would have accomplished something.”

What is Hutchinson’s preparation and background?

Before joining the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law, Hutchinson held tenured positions at American University Washington College of Law and Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law. He was also a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. He received his law degree from Yale Law School and his undergraduates degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

What is Hutchinson’s area of research?

His scholarship emphasizes the importance of viewing inequality as a multidimensional concept.

“I launched my academic career publishing a series of articles that examine the implications of intersecting racism and heterosexism for social justice policy,” he said. “In order to understand the magnitude of harms racism causes, we must also examine sources of subordination that are intertwined with race, such as class, sexual and gender identity, and gender.”

What are his plans for his tenure at Emory Law?

“Atlanta is one of the most important Black cities in the world,” Hutchison said. “But we are at a time where a lot of the young people are very angry and frustrated by the lack of progress in civil rights. What I hope is that I can put some of that energy that people express for civil rights and social justice to good use.”

“After the last election, we saw one of the significant backlashes against civil rights since the civil rights movement. My job is to come in and use the knowledge I have in law to combat that.”

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