Robert Belton, 1935-2012

Robert Belton

The Vanderbilt Law community mourned the loss of Robert Belton after his death February 9. Professor Belton retired from a 34-year career on Vanderbilt's law faculty in 2009.

A nationally recognized scholar of labor and employment and civil rights law, Professor Belton became the first African American to be granted tenure at Vanderbilt Law School after joining the faculty in 1975. He was a popular and beloved teacher and mentor who particularly enjoyed working with students interested in social justice, and he played an important role in mentoring minority law students, serving as faculty advisor to the Black Law Students Association.

After earning his law degree at Boston University, Professor Belton served from 1965-70 as an assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. (LDF), where he headed a national civil rights litigation campaign to enforce what was then a new federal law prohibiting discrimination in employment because of factors such as race and sex. He had a major role in the landmark Supreme Court civil rights case the LDF litigated, Griggs v. Duke Power Co. He then practiced for five years as a partner at the leading civil rights law firm of Chambers Stein Ferguson & Lanning in Charlotte, North Carolina, one of the first racially integrated firms in the South, before joining Vanderbilt's law faculty.

Professor Belton was the lead author of a widely-adopted casebook on employment discrimination law that was the first to incorporate critical race and feminist theory. He taught the Law of Work, Employment Discrimination Law, Constitutional Tort Litigation, and Race and the Law. Among other honors, he received the American Association of Law Schools' Minority Section's Clyde C. Ferguson Award in 2003 and the National Bar Association's Presidential Award in 2006.

Remembering Professor Belton

by David Hudson '94

I loved Robert Belton. I don't think I ever told him, and that makes me very sad. I did, thank God, tell him I was appreciative of his classes, guidance and candid advice. I still am.

My first year of law school was a disaster. I thought many of the class readings boring and suffered from a severe shortage of self-esteem. But in the first semester of my second year, I found a class that intrigued me—Law of Work, taught by Professor Belton. During the second semester, I took Employment Discrimination from Professor Belton. I liked the material, and my friend Rupert Byrdsong suggested that I consider becoming a research assistant. I initially recoiled at the idea, wondering what possible help I could give a learned professor who had litigated U.S. Supreme Court cases and changed civil rights law. But Rupert kept encouraging me to ask him, so I did. To my pleasant surprise, he said yes.

That semester he gave me an assignment to write about the U.S. Supreme Court's case law on the concept of societal discrimination. I liked the assignment and turned in a memo. I'll never forget the next time I saw him. He just stared at me, maybe even glared at me. "Hudson, you can do better than this. You can do much better than this." That was all he had to say.

He made me want to do the best job I could for him. For the first time in law school, I applied myself. My third year, I took his Constitutional Tort Litigation class. I loved the class and aced the final exam. Thanks to his mentoring, I had finally realized that law school had been a good choice for me and that I could succeed. I also became interested in teaching, because I realized what a positive impact a good teacher can have on students who have ability, but lack confidence.

Professor Belton cared about his students during and after law school. He graciously took the time to listen and offer advice on a wide variety of topics—some related to the law, many not. Through the years, we stayed in touch.

When I started writing books, he encouraged me. He listened when I was working on an employment discrimination case or talking about my passion for the First Amendment. When I began work at the First Amendment Center, he told me to get to know and seek counsel from Professor Tom McCoy, which was great advice and connected me with another friend and mentor. He welcomed me as a colleague when I began to teach First Amendment Law at Vanderbilt.

The year after Professor Belton retired, I had the honor of teaching an Employment Discrimination class at Vanderbilt. He shared with me his syllabus, gave me numerous pointers, and told me—"Just be who you are."

Professor Belton was a great teacher, a great mentor, a great man, and a kind and loyal friend. I miss him very much.

Rupert A. Byrdsong '94 was Robert Belton's research assistant from October 1992 until May 1994. Byrdsong is a partner at Ivie McNeill & Wyatt, the largest African-American owned law firm in California, where he oversees the employment discrimination department. Byrdsong remained close to Professor Belton after graduation, and the pair frequently discussed employment discrimination issues. Because of their close friendship, Byrdsong was asked by the Belton family to deliver the eulogy at Professor Belton's memorial service on February 15, 2012. The following tribute is excerpted from Byrdsong's remarks.

Bob Belton was an outstanding mentor, role model and teacher; a trailblazing attorney and advocate; and a loving husband, father, brother, uncle, grandfather and friend. He was also my personal hero.

Bob was a proud member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. He was the first tenured African-American professor at Vanderbilt Law School. It had to be God's divine intervention for Bob to have tenure so he could be free to teach the subjects he taught in the way in which he taught them. The portrait of him now hanging at the law school is an inspiration to not only African-American students, but to all students who desire to make this world better. At the unveiling of the portrait, Bob said he learned three keys things from his father that guided him throughout life. First, keep a youthful spirit; second, pursue meaningful work; and third, find happiness in helping others. Bob excelled in each category.

Bob wanted to be like Thurgood Marshall. He was dedicated to changing the landscape of the law, using the existing laws to bring about equality, and advocating for and framing new law for the same purpose. Many people forget that Bob was an accomplished litigator before he became a professor. Bob went beyond legal theory and philosophy in the classroom because he had been in the trenches. Working with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he knew how to frame the issues and to present the case in a way so that it had a chance to win. This background and training made him an exceptional professor.

One of Bob Belton's claims to fame was that he litigated Griggs v. Duke Power Company. Griggs was the case that set forth the disparate impact theory—that is that you could show discrimination even if you did not consciously intend to discriminate. Griggs established that if the impact of your employment practice systematically excluded a particular race, that practice was illegal unless the employer could show business necessity.  He was working on his book discussing the history and evolution of the Griggs case when he died. It is my prayer that his work is completed to further cement his legacy in employment law.

We were also fortunate to witness Bob Belton's mark on another US Supreme Court case, Harris v. Forklift Systems, a case about sexual harassment that set forth the analytical framework to determine what constitutes a hostile work environment. Bob brought the plaintiff, Patricia Harris, to our class, and he gave a wonderful play-by-play rendition of the arguments by the Supreme Court justices. He was like a kid in a candy store, excited about the victory, but you could tell he was equally excited about the practice of law. He taught from a perspective that the goal was not to get a good grade in his class. The goal was for us to take the knowledge he shared and to make a difference in the world.

When President Barack Obama won the election in 2008, Bob and I talked that night. I called him and said, "Look at what you have achieved! Your body of work has made this day possible." He said, "Byrdsong, when I cast my vote for Obama, just to see his name on the ballot brought me to tears. I never thought I would see this much progress. But we still have work to do."

Bob was not afraid to point out that race is the proverbial elephant in every room—and that you cannot and should not act like it is not there. He often said that race brings people together at the same time it divides; unless you talk about race, you cannot deal with its impact on our thinking, our beliefs, and indeed, our society in general. His ongoing battle was overcoming the hurdle to even have the debate. He wanted people to talk about race. His belief was that once people started talking about race, you could begin to create solutions for the issues raised by it.

Many people forget that Bob was an accomplished litigator before he became a professor. Bob went beyond legal theory and philosophy in the classroom because he had been in the trenches. Working with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he knew how to frame the issues and to present the case in a way so that it had a chance to win. This background and training made him an exceptional professor.

Bob was also not ashamed to be an advocate for affirmative action. He said, "How can you say it is unfair to grant opportunities when one race has benefited from a two hundred year head start?" He thought it was ludicrous to not want to even the playing field. He also dared anyone to show him someone who had benefited from an affirmative action program who did not make a difference once they got the opportunity. Bob did not want a handout. He wanted people to have access and everything would flow from there.

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to have taken four of Bob's classes, and also to serve as his research assistant for two years while I attended Vanderbilt. During those meetings in his office, after and in between classes, I got to witness the pioneering genius of Bob Belton, the passionate commitment to require, to insist that the law do what it is supposed to do—to advance equality and justice. And if the law did not do enough, Bob was continually trying to figure out how it could, and would offer brilliant reasons explaining why it should. He wanted to make a difference. He did make a difference.

So tonight, after you have eaten your dinner, break out a bottle of Jack Daniels and send up a toast in Bob's honor!

Thank you, Bob, for sharing your gifts, your vision and your love.

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