On November 9, 2015, the world lost a warrior for justice with the death of Jacqueline Ann Berrien. I lost a lifelong friend, confidante and sister. Jackie was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic cancer Labor Day weekend. And although we knew that she faced an uphill battle, we could not have foreseen that the cancer would so weaken her body, creating one collateral challenge after another, or that her heart would ultimately fail a little over two months later.
I first met Jackie at Oberlin College, although I can’t remember where or when; Jackie simply became a constant presence in my life. We soon discovered we shared common backgrounds and interests. Jackie was from Washington, D.C., the youngest child of the late Cliff and Ann Berrien, a pharmacist and nurse, respectively. I am from Birmingham, Alabama, the youngest child of my father, a professor at a historically black college, and my mother, who was a social worker prior to her death. Jackie and I were both Catholic, which was not typical of southern blacks. Each of us was a daddy’s girl. And we were both acutely interested in civil rights, politics and obtaining a law degree from Harvard.
“She didn’t just lead by example, she actively mentored scores of aspiring lawyers, peers and anyone who needed help.”
While at Oberlin, it was not unusual for us to socialize and study together in each other’s rooms. We played hard, but worked harder. On one memorable night, we were studying very late and Jackie fell asleep on my bed as I sat reading on a bean bag chair. When I tried to wake her, she turned and sternly instructed, “Leave.” Little did we know that “Leave” was the beginning of a tradition where a single word, phrase or acronym would be packed with secret meanings that only we understood. Over the years there were many words and phrases, some endearing, some irreverent, that we assigned to people or situations we shared.
When I graduated from Oberlin headed to HLS, Jackie vowed to follow–and that she did. It was only natural that we became roommates, given Harvard’s sprawling campus. We settled on a small two-bedroom basement apartment in Somerville. There we uncovered yet another similarity—neither of us had a penchant for housekeeping or cooking!
While at Harvard, Jackie was very active in BLSA and became an editor of the Harvard CR-CL Law Review. She also solidified her relationship with her one true love and husband for 28 years, Peter Williams. They had first met in college during a summer program at Carnegie-Mellon, and although Pete and I continue to dispute whether our first encounter with each other was at Oberlin or HLS, we agree that in the early years of their relationship, I was the perennial third wheel. Jackie included me in everything—dinner, political events, book releases, parties, etc.—so much so that I began to refer to myself as “And Steph.” It was always Jackie, Pete…and Steph. Her generosity was boundless.
During the final months of Jackie’s life, we came full circle. We reminisced about the past, resolved misunderstandings, traded stories about overlapping experiences and colleagues and laughed about how we could still accurately complete each other’s sentences—followed by the jinx jingle: “The king of France split his pants right in the middle of a ballroom dance. Yodleayheehoo! Yodleayheehoo!” We even came up with a new secret acronym. BQE became the moniker for a particular attendant who transported Jackie to various tests and procedures, but applied to anyone who rushed as if on the Brooklyn-Queens-Expressway. I marveled at how upbeat, positive and prayerful Jackie remained even as fear engulfed her eyes.
Jackie Berrien was simply an extraordinary woman who led a remarkable life of service to others. She didn’t just lead by example, she actively mentored scores of aspiring lawyers, peers and anyone who needed help. A voracious reader, Jackie enriched those around her with trivia and actionable intelligence alike. While confronting her illness at Sibley Memorial Hospital Jackie acquired a host of admirers whose day-to-day lives were as important to her as her medical needs were to them. Nurses, technicians, dietitians, physical therapists, housekeeping personnel and other administrative staff would come by to see her even when assigned to other patients or duties. Most, if not all, were totally unaware that they were in the presence of a civil rights leader who had early in her career earned the respect and affection of HLS affiliated civil rights icons including revered activist and author Professor Derrick Bell (for whom she reviewed and edited manuscripts), beloved litigator and educator Julius Chambers (with whom she worked at NAACP-LDF), and the legendary visionary, Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. (with whom she litigated seminal voting rights cases).
One day during Jackie’s brief discharge from Sibley, she sweetly commented, “You were always my big sister. You always looked out for me.” While I will treasure that moment forever, the truth is that Jackie’s huge heart, big personality, indefatigable commitment, keen intellect, and yes, that megawatt smile, paved her path to success. The reality of Jackie’s death continues to confound me. But the example of her life is an enduring inspiration to all. It is a testament to a life well lived that both the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama (HLS ’88) and the Attorney General of the United States, Loretta Lynch (HLS ’84) discreetly attended Jackie‘s funeral along with hundreds to mourn her loss. To paraphrase the sole survivor of her nuclear birth family, brother Clifford Eric Berrien, Jackie was a loving, funny, intelligent, devoted and talented woman whose career consistently contributed to creating a more just nation and world. Jackie’s physical journey has ended. Her spirit and legacy live on.
Stephanie Y. Moore ’85 was an editor of the Harvard Law Review and currently resides in Washington, DC.