First black woman to become U.S. Attorney General
‘It struck me most forcefully that the law must be for everyone.’
One of the most significant moments for me was the first time I opened a trial on my own. I stood in court, in front of a jury, and said my name, and then I said, “and I represent the United States of America.” It resonated within me to such a degree that I knew it would color whatever else I did going forward.
I was a very adventurous child. I am the only daughter and the middle child. I always wanted to do everything my older brother did. We’re very close in age—he’s only 18 months older—but I was always the one who got us into trouble. There was a brick wall right outside the carport at my parents’ home in Greensboro. My favorite thing to do was climb to the top and jump off. I loved that flying sensation. I loved being able to see from up high. My parents had no idea, until one day I fell. I ran into the house to get a washcloth—thereby hastening my doom—just so that I could immediately climb to the top of the carport and jump off again. My mother was horrified. She put a stop to it for a while, but over time vigilance wanes. Pretty soon I was climbing that wall again.
My mother was an English teacher, and then a librarian. Our house was full of books. She taught me to read before I started school and that became my favorite thing to do—aside from jumping off the carport roof. I was one of those kids who asked for books for Christmas presents. For my mother, education was key.
One summer my mother went back to school to finish her master’s degree in library science. She left us in the care of my father and spent that summer on campus so she could focus on her work. As a child, you’re always stunned that your mother has any focus other than you. How is that even possible? But she did. And she did it in a way that never made us feel that we were not also part of that focus, and she made it very clear that one day we were going to be going away to school.
My mother was also a woman of principle. She followed my dad as he was a young preacher driving across the state of North Carolina, preaching revivals. She told me early on how, when she was a young wife and mother, she just decided she was done with the restrooms that were marked “Colored.” They’d had to stop the car one night, and she went right into the restroom that was denoted for white women. The attendant, some young guy, was stunned, and said to her, “No, you’re supposed to go over here.” She said, “I don’t feel like fighting flies,” and just sailed on into the other restroom. She never used segregated facilities again.
My mother felt that if she was going to show her children that you can do anything, then she could not accept discrimination that has no basis in reality—no basis in anything. It had to start with her. She’s always led by example.
My father was much more out front. He was a great influence because he supported me in everything I did. Even though I was the only girl, he never gave me the impression that I was limited in any way. The aspirations and dreams he had for my brothers were the same ones he had for me. The church can be a very traditional place, particularly for a Baptist minister in the South in the ’60s and ’70s. But I saw my father letting women preach from his pulpit. I saw my father advocate for women to serve in leadership positions in his church. For him, talent could not go unrewarded. So from him I got the view that there were no limitations just because I was a girl.
My father was always fighting a fight for someone. Maybe someone had been denied tenure, or there was a civil rights issue in our town. When I was a toddler, he opened up the basement of his church in Greensboro to the student protesters from North Carolina A&T State University who were planning sit-ins and marches and protests over the fight for desegregation. He thought I should see what was happening, so he would ride me on his shoulders when he went to those meetings. From him I learned that just because a cause seems difficult, if enough people are determined to do the right thing, you can change a great many things.
My dad told me that one of his earliest, most vivid memories was of my grandfather working with people who had gotten in trouble with the law. You’re talking 1930s North Carolina—there were no Miranda rights in that day. You were at the mercy of whatever law enforcement stopped you on that dark road in the middle of the night. When people got in trouble, there was no due process, there was no assumed right to a fair trial or even a trial at all. It was a very, very different time. So people came to my grandfather for help. He’d hide them underneath the floorboards of the house where my father grew up.
The sheriff would come by—he knew my grandfather, because everyone knew my grandfather. His name was Augustus Claude Lynch. The sheriff would say, “Gus, have you seen so-and-so?” And my grandfather would say, “I haven’t seen them lately.” And the sheriff would leave.
As I got older, I would ask my dad, “Do you think the sheriff knew?” And he would say, “I think sometimes he did know, but he also knew that there really wasn’t any justice in that area at that time.”
A lot of people in the South were in that situation: when they were confronted with a problem, they had to leave their community, change their name, move farther north. It struck me most forcefully that the law must be for everyone. Obviously, we have to have accountability when something happens, but we have to have a system where you can have faith that you’re going to be treated the same as anyone else.
In my father’s community, people did not have that feeling, particularly people of color. That should not be the case. Not in America. That has stuck with me throughout my legal training and throughout my career.
Lynch served as U.S. Attorney General from 2015 to 2017.