Eva Jefferson Paterson has campaigned for civil rights with passion, courage, and tenacity for more than three decades. She is the president and is a cofounder of the Equal Justice Society, a legal organization transforming the nation’s consciousness on race through law, social science, and the arts.
Prior to taking the helm of the Equal Justice Society in 2003, Paterson worked at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights for 26 years, 13 of them as executive director. She led the organization’s work providing free legal services to low-income individuals, litigating class action civil rights cases, and advocating for social justice. At the Lawyers’ Committee, she was part of a broad coalition that filed the groundbreaking anti-discrimination suit against race and gender discrimination by the San Francisco Fire Department. That lawsuit successfully desegregated the department, winning new opportunities for women and minority firefighters.
Paterson co-founded and chaired the California Civil Rights Coalition for 18 years, and currently serves as the coalition’s steering committee co-chair. She was a leading spokesperson in the campaigns against Proposition 187 (anti-immigrant) and Proposition 209 (anti-affirmative action) and numerous other statewide campaigns against the death penalty, juvenile incarceration, and discrimination against lesbians and gay men.
A self-described beneficiary of affirmative action, Paterson is passionate in support of equal educational opportunities. She co-authored several landmark lawsuits in support of affirmative action: the federal lawsuit challenging California’s Proposition 209, the successful litigation against U.C. Berkeley’s admissions policy limiting access to students of color and an amicus brief in Grutter v. Bollinger, in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the race-conscious admissions policy at the University of Michigan Law School.
Paterson has delivered commencement addresses on college campuses across the nation, and she has served as an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law and at the University of California Hastings College of Law.
The author of numerous articles, including “Can’t We Get Along?” and “The Future of Affirmative Action” (California Lawyer), “Pro Bono Help for Legal Services Programs” (Clearinghouse Review), and “How the Legal System Responds to Battered Women” (Battered Women), Paterson is often sought out by the media for commentary on racial justice issues.
As a 20-year-old student leader at a time of turmoil, Eva Jefferson Paterson was catapulted into the national spotlight when she debated then Vice President Spiro Agnew on live television. Dubbed the “peaceful warrior” for fostering non-violent protest in the aftermath of the 1970 shooting of student demonstrators at Kent State University, she was named one of Mademoiselle’s “Ten Young Women of the Year,” featured on the covers of Ebony and Jet, and called to testify before Congress.
Paterson grew up in a military family in France, England, and southern Illinois. In high school, she traveled the state giving Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. As a junior at Northwestern University, she became the first African American president of student government.