Lift Every Voice by Lani Guinier
Simon & Schuster
May 20, 1998
Web posted at: 1:38 p.m. EDT (1338 GMT)
(CNN) -- In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated his old friend and classmate Lani Guinier to the prestigious and crucial post of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. The nomination sparked a firestorm of controversy, and was eventually withdrawn. Now, Lani Guinier breaks her silence in an insider's account of what really happened behind the closed doors of the Oval Office, the Justice Department, and the U.S. Senate.
It's taken me many years, but in my conscious moments I don't regret any of it. Not
the decision of the president to nominate me. Not the collapse of the president's
support in the face of intense, ideological attack from the right and the center/right.
Not the microscopic personal scrutiny I received in the press both before and after.
Not the subsequent valedictory treatment I received from people I didn't know, but for
whom I clearly came to represent so much. Especially not the belated discovery that
this betrayal was not about me, but about the collapse of a movement. None of it.
How I came to this point is the story of this book. This book is about the battles fought
in the belief that our racial history and our commitment to equality and democracy are
essential parts of the same story. It has not always been a pretty story, nor one that
follows an inevitable path. This book is not, however, an effort to settle scores. It's the
story of the efforts of men and women who believe fundamentally in the promise of
the American creed and who act on that belief in their everyday lives. These are
people whose lives are without notoriety or fame, but in whose willingness to take
risks we see the honor of real heroism.
They are ordinary people in that they do not hold elected office or wield formal
power. They do not enjoy great wealth, easy access to the media, lengthy resumes, or
"big jobs." Like so many others who have changed the course of our history, they
appear ordinary to the unobservant, but on closer scrutiny they are extraordinary in
the way we all benefit from the actual work they do.
These are the people, some of whom were once civil rights activists, clients, or
sympathizers, who still struggle to connect with others to make a difference, not just
for themselves but for their families and their community. These are people who
struggle within their own neighborhoods to create the possibility for others to be
treated with dignity, to be given an opportunity to speak, and, even more, to be given
a meaningful chance to participate in making the decisions that affect all of our lives.
These are people with considerable power, but their power depends on commitment
and sustained struggle, and not just isolated struggle. These are people whose voices
are too often missing from public debate about issues on which they are expert. Their
voices are missing not because they don't want to speak but because they don't get a
When I was trying voting cases as a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund
during the 1980s, many of these people were my clients. When I say "my clients," I
am referring to more than a single person or group of people who retain a lawyer to
represent them in a legal case. The term is a metaphor for those whom civil rights
lawyers, including myself, undertook to represent when we joined the civil rights
movement and fought for civil rights issues. We were lawyers, often playing
traditional roles in court or behind the scenes as legislative advocates. But we were
also deeply connected to the interests of those whom we sought to represent. Their
interests, as we saw them, were not simply an improvement in their individual
material conditions or social status. We did not see ourselves as merely litigating on
behalf of a set of special or unique interests. We represented ordinary people, who
fought for the chance to become active citizens in a genuine and inclusive democracy.
We believed that if our clients could participate in making decisions that affected their
lives, they would change those decisions in ways that enriched all of us.
Participation matters, after all. A seat at the table and a voice at the podium enables
each of us to become part of something larger than ourselves.
Self-reliance is an important survival tool. But participation among and with others
offers more than simple survival. It nourishes and reinforces both the individual and
the community. When individuals participate as citizens, they often realize their fullest
potential, supported and affirmed by others. The act of participating in concert
reinforces the individual dignity and sense of purpose even of those who fight and fail.
My civil rights clients understood this all too well. They were people who fought back
not simply because they were personally aggrieved, but because their injury connected
them to a community and a movement that was both as narrow as their local interests
and as broad as a nation. My clients were most powerful when they could tell their
own stories not having to translate their emotions, their hurts, their hopes, or their
fears through the formal categories of a single lawsuit. They understood and believed
more deeply than most in the law, but they also knew it is democracy on which the law
rests. And democracy demands the ability to participate, the opportunity to act in close
association with others, and the right to a hearing. It was only when they could speak
plainly through collective actions Americans of any color would understand that their
voices were in fact heard.
It was while my nomination to be Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights was
pending in 1993 that I saw, from the inside, the ways in which the commitment to a
civil rights vision that is inclusive, democratic, and empowering often means that
against you are arrayed the powerful forces of privilege, both public and private. That
experience allowed me to understand why meaningful participation is so important. it
also reminded me, in the most personal way possible, that the civil rights movement,
in too many ways, has left that understanding behind.
In seeking the nomination, I wasn't fighting for a specific legal remedy or a specific
legal cause, but I experienced the kinds of things my clients did, in a different context.
I now knew firsthand what it meant to have no voice. My clients, who fought for the
right to vote, were fighting for a voice. By playing according to the rules laid down to
me, I surrendered my voice to others. In this book, I describe how I lost and then
reclaimed my own voice by interweaving my story with those of others -- the men and
women who taught me, through their own example, the redemptive value of collective
action and the importance of voicing individual grievances within a larger,
In retrospect, much has crystalized for me since the nomination. I came to see my
"dis-appointment" as an opportunity rather than a defeat. While I was rejected by the
political mainstream as a nominee for public office, I was affirmed by others as a
"scholar with a heart," what The New Yorker called an "Idea Woman." I became
myself. I could now speak in my own voice. I could also use this experience to invite
others into the conversation.
This, then, is also the story of my own intellectual and political growth and how the
nomination debacle moved me to another stagea broader public platform and a more
complex but ultimately satisfying personal and professional identity. In losing a
hearing I was pushed back to strength. I discovered the strength that comes from
promoting a more inclusive social justice agenda. I found my own voice in listening to
others lift theirs.
Copyright © 1998 by Lani Guinier. All Rights Reserved.
Related sites:Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.
© 1998 Cable News Network, Inc.
All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this
service is provided to you.