W. Haywood Burns was a legal warrior, fighting for the rights of Blacks and the underserved in the courtroom and inspiring legions of students in his classroom. The foundation that bears his name continues this tradition, inspiring new generations of young people to continue what he started.
Burns was born on June 15, 1940, in Peekskill, N.Y. He found what would be his calling at 15, when he successfully helped integrate a public swimming pool in his hometown. He was a brilliant student. Burns graduated from Harvard College with honors, and from Yale University Law School in 1966. During his time at Yale, he participated in the Freedom Summer of 1964 in Mississippi.
His first book, “The Voices of Negro Protest in America,” was a research study he conducted on Black Muslims and was published in 1963.
After graduating from Yale, Burns joined a New York law firm but soon left to become the law clerk to judge Constance Baker Motley. He later became assistant counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and served as general counsel to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign in 1968.
The following year, Burns helped found the National Conference of Black Lawyers at a time when there were fewer than 3,000 Black lawyers in the country. Little did Burns know he was to serve as the legal arm of the Black revolution; soon the group was representing the Black Panthers, those resisting the Vietnam War and student protesters at Cornell University.
Burns began teaching in 1974, becoming a visiting professor of law at the State University of New York at Buffalo. During this time he also coordinated the defense of 62 inmates at Attica Prison involved in the infamous riot of 1971, for which he laid the blame at the feet of then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, calling the event “a human tragedy that ranks in the annals of national disgrace with My Lai.”
Burns had quite the full schedule, between his law practice and teaching a full load of students; in essence he held two full-time jobs, which he brilliantly performed on about four hours of sleep a night.
Burns was an associate law professor at New York University, the founding dean of the Urban Legal Studies Program at City College and vice provost and dean for urban and legal programs.
In 1987, he became dean of the Law School at Queens College, the first Black dean of a law school in New York. He was also a visiting scholar at Yale Law School. In addition, he continued to write for law journals and various other publications on the topics of race and affirmative action. Burns always used his legal talents to fight for human and civil rights.
He was also quick to speak out against people in power and openly opposed several candidates for the Supreme Court, including the nomination of judge Clarence Thomas. In a 1991 New York Times piece, he noted the similarities between his and Thomas’ humble beginnings but also pointed out that he and Thomas had taken different directions. He called Thomas a “counterfeit hero.”
Burns stepped down from his duties as dean in 1994 and went back to the classroom, teaching “Race and Law,” “Critical Race Theory” and constitutional law.
Burns was a real inspiration to his students, always making time to give advice and help with finding jobs.
Harry Wallace, of the Unkechaug Nation of Long Island, was a student of Burns’ at New York Law School. Inspired and encouraged by Burns, Wallace went on to become a champion for the legal rights of Native American people. He fondly recalled his association with Burns:
“My association with Haywood Burns developed when I was a student and he taught discrimination law at New York Law School-this was prior to his becoming dean of the CUNY Law School. Professor Burns ultimately agreed to be my faculty adviser in the preparation and submission of my law school thesis.
“When he saw my thesis draft, he said that I should submit it to the Law Review for publication. I thought he was crazy, but he told me the scholarship of research of American Indian land claims cases contained in the draft was so in-depth that it was worthy of publication. Ultimately, it was published by the Law Review. The acknowledgment of quality by someone of that caliber, as a practicing attorney and scholar, was inspiring and confirmed my commitment to the study and practice of Indian Law,” Wallace said.
Burns was killed in a car accident in Cape Town, South Africa, on April 2, 1996, while attending a conference on democracy and international law. He was 55 years old. The night before his death, Burns called his wife and told her that hearing President Nelson Mandela give a speech at a session of South Africa’s democratically elected, multiracial parliament was “the proudest and happiest day of my life.”
The legacy of W. Haywood Burns lives on through the institute named in his honor. The San Francisco-based center is dedicated to inspiring young people to continue to to reduce the number of youth of color confined, who make up nearly 70 percent of the prison population, and establish equitable policies moving forward. New York honors Burns with the W. Haywood Burns School in Inwood and the W. Haywood Burns corner in Harlem at 143rd Street and Convent Avenue.
- Look it up: Use the Internet or other reference source to learn more about the life and work of W. Haywood Burns.
- Talk about it: Burns spent his life fighting for the rights of Black people and inspiring students. He started at 15. Discuss with your classmates how you can do small things every day that can make a big difference.
- Write it down: Make a list of three people who inspire you and why. They could be family members or friends. Why do they inspire you, and how? Discuss this with your classmates.This Week in Black History
This Week in Black History
- Famed educator Mary McLeod Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women on Dec. 5, 1935.
- On Dec. 6, 1875, the 44th Congress convened with the historic high of eight Blacks, all of whom were from the South, including Sen. Blanche K. Bruce and Reps. Jeremiah Haralson, Josiah T. Walls, John R. Lynch, John A. Hyman, Charles E. Nash, Joseph H. Rainey and Robert Smalls.
- On Dec. 9, 1961, the African country Tanzania became independent.