The Reformer: Rita Geier

George Barrett

By the time she came to Nashville, Rita Geier had already decided that marches and protests were not the tools she would use to effect change in the world. While earning her master's at the University of Chicago in the mid-1960s, she participated in marches led by Martin Luther King Jr. that were disrupted by violent counter-protests. "That was the first time I saw faces so distorted by anger, shouting, spitting—there were bricks thrown," she said. "It was an experience that showed me that I needed to find a better way, for me, to make a difference, and that was the law."

Born in Memphis in 1944, the daughter of a Methodist minister and a public school teacher, Geier had attended segregated schools in Tennessee and Arkansas but never lived a segregated existence. She describes a summer camp she attended outside Little Rock that included a diverse cross-section of ethnicities and nationalities, all while the integration of Central High School was developing into a constitutional crisis just down the road. After graduating from Fisk University in Nashville, she moved to Chicago, a period in her life that expanded her horizons exponentially. Geier recalls stimulating discussions at the homes of her advisers, John Hope Franklin and Daniel Boorstin, and gaining broader perspectives on issues from politically and socially diverse friends and fellow students. She adopted as a role model Marian Wright Edelman, a young black lawyer who was then working in Mississippi as a civil rights leader and children's rights advocate.

Returning to Tennessee to teach at Tennessee State University, she began to see the pervasive disparities that existed in higher education based on continuation of a dual system, one black and one white, that had to be dismantled statewide for there to be real change. George Barrett and Ruth Robinson, his law clerk and also a Vanderbilt Law student, had both the legal theories and the courage to help her mount this challenge. After enrolling at Vanderbilt and, eventually clerking for Barrett, Geier's legal education really began. "I remember going with George to these little towns in Tennessee that I'd never heard of at night for union meetings. I was the only woman there and often the only black face," she said, describing the mutual shock she and Barrett's clients surely felt. "I considered that part of my legal education." Today, she notes that nothing could replace the invaluable experience of drafting the first set of interrogatories for the federal lawsuit in which she was the named plaintiff and then continuing her role in the case for the next four decades.

The Tennessee litigation was an important part of Geier's life, but it did not define her. After leaving Nashville in the 1970s, she moved to Seattle to serve as western regional director for the Legal Services Corporation. Indeed, the bulk of Geier's 41-year legal career was spent in public service. She was general counsel for the Appalachian Regional Commission and held posts at the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Division, and the Social Security Administration, first as Associate Commissioner and ultimately as Executive Counselor to the Commissioner. She received the Presidential Rank Meritorious Executive Award from President Bill Clinton and is a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.

In 2007, Geier was named associate chancellor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where she oversaw "Ready for the World," an initiative designed to foster diversity at UT and to prepare students for the intercultural opportunities and challenges of a globalized world. She and the university's administration saw the program as an outgrowth of the Consent Decree—Geier for the 21st century, an era in which race-based diversity policies are judicially disfavored, but the educational value of interculturalism at home and abroad was recognized. "We were continuing a job that wasn't finished, wrapping Geier into that broader world and promoting the goal of diversity," Geier said, noting that it has been a challenge to convince people that underrepresentation is an ongoing problem to address. "Whether it is making inroads for students from Appalachia or working to include African-Americans and Hispanics, it's important because you simply can't have an intercultural education without a diverse student body and faculty, not just suburban white kids."

Geier recently retired from the post but plans to stay involved with the fight for equal access in education. "I hope the opportunities that people have received under Geier can be plowed back into their communities and into the elementary and secondary systems," she said. "We have to look at a holistic approach, and it's not going to happen overnight."

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