A Q&A with 2020 Centennial Medal Award winner Susie Powell ('73)

Susie Ruth Powell (’73)

Susie Ruth Powell (’73) is the recipient of 2020 Centennial Medal Award, the highest honor bestowed upon a CWRU Law graduate.  Former managing attorney and litigator with NC Legal Services and assistant professor of law at North Carolina Central, Powell is co-author of the Emmy award-winning documentary, “The Loving Story.”  Powell will discuss her life and career at the upcoming lecture, "The Legal and Writing Adventures of Susie Ruth Powell," on October 9 from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. The event is free to attend virtually and will be webcast live.

Q. How did you end up attending Case Western Reserve University School of Law?

SUSIE: I had engaged in the civil rights protests my last year of undergraduate school at Bennett, breaking my promise to my father who feared for my safety. I went on to teach English after finishing graduate school at Smith College but left that behind for a new career after I was inspired by Lyndon B. Johnson’s anti-poverty movement. 

I joined the Community Action Program in Vermont as an assistant director. When my boss left, the Board hired a guy who said he needed a man in my job. I was asked to resign because of my gender. I made myself a promise never to be at the mercy of such inequity, so I applied to law school.  I had been to Cleveland for two weddings and remembered the lake and art museum. That’s how I landed at Case Western Reserve.    

Q. You practiced poverty law in Ohio and North Carolina after law school. Did you know you wanted to specialize in that when you entered law school? Was there a professor or course in law school that set you on that path?

SUSIE: I entered law school with the goal of fighting poverty, which I saw as a part of the civil rights struggle. At first, my law school classes -- Contracts, Corporations, Income Tax -- seemed miles away from poverty. Nevertheless, I understood that I was learning about the system. Then, under Professor Mel Durchslag, I did an independent study of redlining —discriminatory credit practices against low-income neighborhoods— and came to understand how important banking is to the wealthy, the middle class and the poor. Next, I took consumer law, which opened my eyes to other abuses. Years later, my late husband and I lobbied against payday lenders. 

Q. Current events such as the killing of George Floyd can leave an indelible mark on law students. You received your juris doctor from Case Western Reserve in 1973. Was there anything about that year that affected the trajectory of your career?

SUSIE: I graduated the year of the Watergate scandal.  We, along with the entire nation, came to realize the value of ethics. By the time we were being sworn in, in Ohio, we were being told that we would be the last class that had not been required to formally study ethics. 

Q. Soon after passing the Ohio Bar, you sued the United States on behalf of poor people living in substandard federal housing in the case of Garden Valley Tenants Associations v James Lynn and the United States of America. What was that case about?

SUSIE: Garden Valley was a housing development built on top of what had been a garbage dump. There were probably 500 or 600 units. When the owner had depreciated the tax benefits, he walked away, and the United States became the owner and landlord. The U.S. sent letters to every tenant informing them of a rent increase.  The tenants wanted repairs on the elevators and windows replaced, but the U.S. refused. I advised a rent strike and sued on their behalf for repairs. I opened a bank account in which I deposited the rent money. Judge Lambros threatened to hold me in contempt of court if I didn’t turn over the money. He sent me home to think about whether I was willing to go to jail.  I was. This led to a standoff.  Eventually, the repairs were made, and the money was turned over. Some of the welfare mothers who I represented went on to run for public office.

Q. You and your late husband, Franklin Anderson, moved to North Carolina, where you became a contracts and trial practice professor at North Carolina Central University School of Law. What stands out for you about the experience of being a law professor there?

North Carolina Central University is a special place and is the most diverse law school in the country. It actually has a historic connection to Case Western Reserve. Everyone knows that Fred Gray, who had represented Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks during the civil rights struggle, is a graduate of Case Western Reserve School of Law. But did you know that he successfully sued the state of North Carolina for refusing admission because of race? As a result of that lawsuit, North Carolina Central University came into existence as a school for blacks.

Q. You are the co-author of HBO’s documentary film, The Loving Story. The film won an Emmy and a Peabody Award. How did you get involved in that project? How did you research and write the script?

SUSIE:  I had followed the Loving case since the 1960s. For research, I went back and read old JET magazines, Ebony and old black newspapers. In addition, two of the children of the Lovings worked with me on the project. Richard Loving was a white man. Mildred Loving was black and Native American.  They married in D.C. and then returned to Virginia where interracial marriage was against the law.  They spent the next nine years fighting for the right to live as husband and wife, culminating in a victory in the U.S. Supreme Court.  The case intrigued me.  The story is a powerful statement about fighting racial intolerance.