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Lani Guinier, civil rights champion and Harvard law professor, dies at 71

Ms. Guinier admired a thank you note from a speaking engagement in 2002.BOHN, John GLOBE STAFF/The Boston Globe - The Boston Gl

A leading voice for voting rights long before her nomination to lead the US Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division made her nationally known, Lani Guinier died Friday.

Ms. Guinier, the Bennett Boskey professor of law emerita at Harvard Law School, where she was the first woman of color granted tenure, was 71 and died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

After serving as a special assistant in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division during the Carter administration, Ms. Guinier worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where she headed the voting rights project. In 1988, she joined the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she became a tenured professor.

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In April 1993, then-President Bill Clinton — a former Yale Law School classmate of Ms. Guinier’s — nominated her to be assistant attorney general for civil rights.

Republican US senators and conservative media figures quickly fought her nomination, however, and Clinton withdrew the nomination.

“A Wall Street Journal headline writer on April 30 conceived the killer epithet: Clinton’s ‘Quota Queen,’ ” she wrote in a New York Times essay the following February.

After Clinton withdrew her nomination, she spoke at a news conference about the experience.

“I have always wanted to be a civil rights lawyer,” she said, according to a transcript posted on the BlackPast.org website.

“I deeply regret that I shall not have the opportunity for public service in the Civil Rights Division,” she added. “I am greatly disappointed that I have been denied the opportunity to go forward to be confirmed and to work closely to move this country away from the polarization of the last 12 years, to lower the decibel level of the rhetoric that surrounds race, and to build bridges among people of goodwill to enforce the civil rights laws on behalf of all Americans.”

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Ms. Guinier’s son, Niko Bowie, an assistant professor at Harvard Law School, was a young boy at the time of the nomination.

“My mother taught me from a very early age the meaning of courage,” he said Friday, recalling how she declined to disavow her previous work, which drew criticism from conservatives.

“She taught me that a principle is far more important and courage is far more important than any position someone can give you,” he said. “The idea of achieving something like an appointment is very nice, but sacrificing something that is important to you is never worth it.”

A graduate of Radcliffe College and Yale Law School, Ms. Guinier was born in New York City in 1950.

She was a daughter of Ewart Guinier, the first chairman of Harvard’s Department of Afro-American Studies, and Eugenia Paprin Guinier, who was known as Genii. Ms. Guinier’s mother was a civil rights activist, a speech therapist, and a high school English teacher.

In 1986, Ms. Guinier married Nolan Bowie, a lawyer who is a fellow emeritus at the Kennedy School of Government and had taught at Temple University in Philadelphia.

In a tribute sent to the Harvard Law School community, John F. Manning, the law school’s dean, wrote that Ms. Guinier’s “scholarship changed our understanding of democracy – of why and how the voices of the historically underrepresented must be heard and what it takes to have a meaningful right to vote. It also transformed our understanding of the educational system and what we must do to create opportunities for all members of our diverse society to learn, grow, and thrive in school and beyond.”

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In addition to her husband and son, Ms. Guinier leaves three sisters, Chlotilde Stenson, Sary Guinier, and Marie Guinier; and a granddaughter, Cora, who was born three years ago and whom she saw regularly before the pandemic.

A memorial gathering to celebrate Ms. Guinier’s life and work will be announced.

“Lani devoted her life to justice, equality, empowerment, and democracy and made the world better as a result,” Manning wrote. “Her voice, her wisdom, her integrity, her bravery, her caring for others, her imagination and rigorous thinking, and her unerring sense of justice will inspire those who knew her and those who come to know of her life and legacy in the years to come.”

A complete obituary will follow.


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.