Oberlin Saddened by the Loss of Civil Rights Attorney and Chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
Former Oberlin College trustee, civil rights attorney, and chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Jacqueline Berrien ’83 died November 9, 2015. She is survived by her husband Peter Williams, her brother, her brothers-in-law, and beloved nieces and nephews.
“She was a wonderful board member and alum, always ready to help Oberlin students and alumni,” says Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov. “I will miss her as a friend and as a colleague.”
Clyde McGregor ’74, chair of the Board of Trustees, also expressed regret upon hearing the news. "Speaking for the board, I extend our collective condolences to the Berrien Family. Jacqueline was a loyal Oberlin alumna and Board of Trustees member. We are grateful to her for her contributions to Oberlin College’s success."
A native of Washington, D.C., Berrien graduated from Oberlin with a degree in English and highest honors in government. In an interview with the Oberlin Alumni Magazine, she said Oberlin helped her get a sense for the civil rights work that would later define her career. After Oberlin, she attended Harvard Law School, where she served as general editor for the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review and befriended future First Lady Michelle Obama.
Berrien began her career in civil rights law as a clerk for U.W. Clemon, the first African American United States District Court judge, and went on to hold many positions in civil rights law. She served as an attorney with the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, and worked with the National Legal Department and Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. She also served as a program officer for the Ford Foundation’s Peace and Social Justice Program and associate-director counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), where she helped direct the implementation of LDF’s legal advocacy and scholarship programs.
On April 7, 2010, she was sworn in as chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an agency created under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 charged with ending discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, and disability in the workplace. As chair, Berrien ensured EEOC had the resources to successfully investigate and litigate claims while reducing or maintaining the inventory of pending charges. Despite sequestration, declining resources, and a record number of claims filed, under her tenure the EEOC was able to increase productivity, and the agency received the largest award in its history—$240 million for the class of intellectually disabled men in EEOC v. Hill Country Farms. Berrien’s term as chair ended August 31, 2014.
"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 released by the EEOC. “Her dedication to public service made a difference in so many lives and left our nation more just."
President Obama also released a statement expressing his sadness about losing the civil rights leader and thanking her for her service. “Michelle and I were saddened to learn of the passing of Jacqueline Berrien, former chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Jackie’s leadership and passion for ensuring everyone gets a fair chance to succeed in the workplace has changed our country for the better. She spent her entire career fighting to give voice to underrepresented communities—from her work at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund to her advocacy at the American Civil Liberties Union. At the EEOC, she fought hard every day to make real our nation’s promise of equal opportunity for all. She injected new life into the EEOC with new ideas and strategies that helped refocus the commission on its enduring mission—protecting the most fundamental rights of all Americans. We offer our gratitude for her service, and our thoughts and prayers are with all those who loved her dearly.”
I am so saddened by the passing of Jackie. It was a delight to work with Jackie on her honors thesis. She was so gifted and had the personal qualities that said to me she would bring honor to herself, her family, and Oberlin. And she certainly did just that. Sincerely, Ron Kahn
This is a heartbreaking loss for all who knew Jackie. We worked together that the Ford Foundation and she was an exemplary grantsmaker-- risk taking thoughtful and always open to collaboration. She lit up our work with her commitment to social justice and respect for all people.
I'm saddened by the death of Jackie Berrien, whom I taught during her days at Oberlin. You could tell back then that she was destined to do great things, and she did not disappoint. Condolences to her family.