Lewis: Fighting for Civil Rights through the courts

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A look at the history of the civil rights struggle conjures images of pioneering women like Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress; and Alma Speed Fox, the former executive director of the Pittsburgh Branch of the NAACP. But a new face is emerging on the civil rights front in Pittsburgh.

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KNOW YOUR RIGHTS—Tim Stevens and Tracey McCants Lewis answer audience questions about how to interact with police.

Tracey McCants Lewis is an assistant clinical professor of law at Duquesne University who has gained prominence for her work with Duquesne’s Bill of Rights, Civil Rights Litigation Clinic. For Lewis, today’s civil rights battles aren’t waged in the streets; they’re fought through the court system.

“Civil rights is something I’ve been interested in since I think I was little. In third grade I had to do a report on Shirley Chisholm and that sparked my interest,” said Lewis, 41. “Even as a child, I recognized some of the struggles I had to deal with being African-American and a woman.”

As the head of the Bill of Rights clinic, Lewis helps Duquesne students gain practical experience litigating civil rights claims. Many of the complaints Lewis and her students work with come from monthly meetings held by the Pittsburgh NAACP.

“We get a number of our cases directly from the NAACP. We’re seeing employment discrimination, housing discrimination and just a lot of criminal matters where people need assistance,” said Lewis, who is the acting director of clinical legal education. “The president of the NAACP specifically put out a call looking for attorneys to participate in these meetings to lend legal expertise to the complaints being voiced at these meetings. With this clinic, the students actually sit in on these meetings. Students will assist their clients with filling a claim. Often our cases will result in a settlement.”

Under the supervision of Lewis, students can help clients file discrimination claims with the Pittsburgh Human Relations Commission or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Lewis said the majority of cases she sees are related to employment discrimination.

“We’re seeing cases that are shocking to one’s conscience, nooses being displayed at the work place to intimidate African-Americans and it’s strange to think those kinds of things are still happening today in Pittsburgh,” she said. “I was listening to (National Public Radio) this morning and someone made a comment that some of the civil rights issues we have today, the racial discrimination, some of it is a learned pattern; a lot of it is just misunderstanding. I think some of that misunderstanding and ignorance leads to what we’re seeing now. But I think there are some individuals who look at the fact we have an African-American president and they’re unhappy and they take it out on coworkers.”

Lewis also lent her skills in response to the alleged 2010 beating of Jordan Miles by three undercover police officers. At an event sponsored by the ACLU, she taught members of the audience how to react when they are stopped by police officers.

“I’m a board member with the ACLU. so after the incident first happened I participated in some events to help people know what their rights are when they’re stopped by the police and how to stay safe,” she said. “During that time, my biggest thing was to educate people.”

Lewis was raised in Monroeville and attended Gateway High School. She received her bachelor’s degree in political science, and her law degree from Duquesne before going on to a corporate law position with K&L Gates.

“Initially I didn’t start out in civil rights; I was an associate at K&L Gates,” she said. “When I started working at Duquesne as the assistant professor at the law clinic and began as a professor in the Bill of Rights Clinic, it was a perfect match because civil rights issues have always been in my heart.”

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