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Law professor honored as ‘Living Legend’

The Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket, recently honored Northeastern University law professor Margaret Burnham with its “Living Legend” award. Burnham, who received the award at a gala in Boston on March 7, was recognized for her work as a civil rights lawyer, educator, and activist, as well as for being the first African American woman to serve in the Massachusetts judiciary.

The Living Legend awards “salute extraordinary trailblazers whose remarkable accomplishments uphold the legacy of 18th- and 19th-century black patriots and their colleagues who distinguished themselves on behalf of freedom and justice,” according to the museum’s website. In addition to Burnham, actor and humanitarian Harry Belafonte and former Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino also received Living Legends awards this year. They were presented with the Garrison Silver Cup, a replica of the symbol of freedom presented by Boston’s black leaders to the founder of the New England Anti-slavery Society and Liberator newspaper publisher in 1833.

“It’s a sublime experience to be honored by the Museum of African American History, which links us to such transcendent moments in the American experience, and to such magnificent voices of courage, like those of William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass,” Burnham said. “One always hopes that one’s work matters in the world, and tributes such as this one confirm that someone is listening and someone is learning. At the end of the day, though, the award is really a directive to keep on working.”

Northeastern law professor Margaret Burnham, right, with actor and humanitarian Harry Belafonte at the Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket, 2014 Living Legends Awards gala on March 7. Photo courtesy of the Museum of African American History.

Northeastern law professor Margaret Burnham, right, with actor and humanitarian Harry Belafonte at the Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket, 2014 Living Legends Awards gala on March 7. Photo courtesy of Craig Bailey, Perspective Photo.

Burnham—an expert on civil and human rights, comparative constitutional rights, and international criminal law—joined the School of Law’s faculty in 2002. She is the founder of the law school’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, which engages students in legal matters relating to the 1960s U.S. civil rights movement. In 2010, she headed a team of outside counsel and law students in a landmark case that settled a federal lawsuit: Burnham’s team accused Franklin County Mississippi law enforcement officials of assisting Klansmen in the kidnapping, torture, and murder of two 19-year-olds, Henry Dee and Charles Eddie Moore. The case and settlement received national headlines.

Burnham began her career at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. In the 1970s, she represented civil rights and political activists. In 1977, she became the first African American woman to serve in the Massachusetts judiciary, when she joined the Boston Municipal Court bench as an associate justice. In 1982, she became partner in a Boston civil rights firm with an international human rights practice. In 1993, South African president Nelson Mandela appointed Burnham to serve on an international human rights commission to investigate alleged human rights violations within the African National Congress. The commission was a precursor to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Over the course of her illustrious career, she has written extensively on contemporary legal and political issues.

“Margaret Burnham truly is a legend for her lifetime of path-breaking accomplishments as a lawyer, judge, teacher, and scholar, but what most inspires her friends and colleagues are her daily displays of sound judgment, tireless leadership, and passionate devotion to the cause of justice,” said Jeremy Paul, dean of the School of Law. “We are proud Northeastern has long been her professional home.”