Jacqueline Berrien ’86, a leading civil rights lawyer and former chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, died on Nov. 9, 2015. She was 53.
Berrien, a native of the District of Columbia, led the EEOC during a four-year term, from 2010 to 2014. “She fought hard every day to make real our nation’s promise of equal opportunity for all,” said President Barack Obama ’91 in a statement from the White House. “Jackie’s leadership and passion for ensuring everyone gets a fair chance to succeed in the workplace has changed our country for the better.”
During her tenure, the commission promulgated rules against discrimination in employment and health insurance enrollment on the basis of disability or genetic test results. Under her leadership, systemic investigations and litigation increased each year and became a significant part of the agency’s work. While she was chair, the EEOC won the largest award under the Americans with Disabilities Act and largest award in the agency’s history: $240 million for the class of intellectually disabled men in EEOC v. Hill Country Farms.
“Chair Berrien’s death is a tragic loss for the civil rights community for which she was a guiding light,” said current EEOC Chair Jenny R. Yang in a statement from the agency. “Her dedication to public service made a difference in so many lives and left our nation more just.”
Berrien graduated from Oberlin College and from Harvard Law School, where she was general editor of The Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. After serving as a clerk for Judge U.W. Clemon, the first African-American U.S. District Court Judge in Birmingham, Ala., she joined the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.
In 1994, she became an assistant counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, focusing on voting rights and school desegregation litigation. After working at the Ford Foundation, she returned as associate director-counsel of the fund.
She taught at Harvard Law, New York Law School and Fordham Law School. She is survived by her husband, Peter M. Williams, the executive vice president for programs for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and her brother Clifford Eric Berrien.