Civil Rights Act Turns 50

Pursuing law at Harvard to help the fight for equality

As a black woman raised in a hardscrabble neighborhood on St. Louis’ south side, Derecka Purnell is pretty sure she wouldn’t be heading to Harvard Law School in September if it weren’t for the Civil Rights Act.

The 24-year-old relocated to Kansas City when she was offered a full-ride scholarship to the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where she earned a bachelor’s in political science. In 2009, she got married, and in February her son, Grandon, was born. Her husband and son are moving to Boston with her.

Asked how she is going to make law school work with a baby at home, Purnell gives the carrier her son is sleeping in a gentle push and replies with a direct gaze, “It’s going to work. Women have done harder things.”

Like many people of her generation, Purnell admits to having been naive as a teenager in thinking that discrimination no longer exists.

When a high school friend asked her to get involved with the Missouri Civil Rights Initiative to fight efforts to ban affirmative action in Missouri, she says, “I told him, ‘People don’t do that anymore.’ I was oblivious. Then he told me about the affirmative action ban that passed in California, so I canvassed and we succeeded in keeping it off the ballot.”

That experience opened her eyes.

“I decided to not tolerate it, to not just be a bystander and focus only on my own success. I’m going to study civil rights law because I owe it to people who still have to fight to prove their worth and their humanity to do something about it,” she says.

Purnell believes race is not the only area of civil rights law that needs strengthening.

When it came time for a Skype interview with Harvard, Purnell, visibly pregnant, zoomed her webcam in on her face.

“I didn’t want anyone making assumptions about what I’m able to handle,” she says. “A man would never have to deal with that.”

While Purnell is grateful for the doors the Civil Rights Act opened, there is also a nagging frustration as the nation marks the half-century of the landmark legislation.

“When I told my mom I was moving to Boston, she said, ‘Is it bad there, too?’ I automatically knew she was talking about racism. I shouldn’t even have known what she was talking about. I should have wondered, ‘Is what bad? The weather? Traffic?’ But I knew.

“Then we went to my grandmother’s house, and she asked exactly the same question. So to be even having this conversation across generations with a woman who was born in 1936 and a woman who was born in 1965 asking me that question in 2014 is crazy,” she says. “I hope I don’t ever have to ask my son that question, and if I do, I hope he doesn’t know what ‘it’ means.”