Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Education: Law School

BOND: And I would guess, and tell me if I'm wrong, that Antioch gives you that much more so than Yale did. Or much --

NORTON: Much more so than Yale. Yale was not trying to form people. Yale was trying to put out -- well, let me step back. Yale assumed that it had bright young people who wanted to go into the law. I went to Yale for a very special reason, though. Because of the great law schools, Yale tended to at least have had great legal scholars who believed in legal realism, who had thought about law, beyond what we call the black letter law. And it also was small enough so that it was not one of these huge legal factories that might well have alienated somebody like me who had a very special reason for going to law school.

BOND: Now, your schoolmates are Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton?

NORTON: They're a few years after me.

BOND: You're not there at the same time?

NORTON: No. They're a few years after me. The -- it's important to note, though, that another reason I chose Yale was because Yale allowed you to get a master's degree and law degree at the same time.

BOND: Why was that important?

NORTON: It was absolutely not important. What had been important was, and here is where I owe Antioch a great deal because the social action -- the notion about converting what you believe into action -- was very much alive there, but as I said, it was an intensely intellectual atmosphere. Most people went on to get a Ph.D. It was amazing. I would say almost the average graduate would get the Ph.D. There were maybe three of us who went to law school, two of the three to Yale, and, you know, three or four to medical school, but basically going on for greater knowledge. And as much as I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer, I really did believe it was a trade. It wasn't a craft. It did not necessarily take the mind and expand it to understand the world. Meanwhile, I had studied history. C. Vann Woodward and John Morton Blum, I would say without a doubt the greatest historians of their period, were both teaching there, so somehow I thought I could have both worlds. I would study history, American Studies. I would study law. So I went to law school four years -- the first year only law, the third year only law, second and third [fourth] year part law, part graduate school, and that was for no reason. I understood it would be for no reason. I've never used the master's degree and I've never had one day of regret that it took me another year to get out of law school because I wanted to pursue it.

BOND: But if you've not used it in the formal sense, you've certainly used it in the informal sense.

NORTON: Absolutely.

BOND: Your master's and the history, especially Woodward, I mean, had to inform you about Ways and Means, and things that you could not have gotten had you just been a regular law student.

NORTON: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the notion of being able to sit there and listen, to see what is different about -- what am I hearing that's different? What makes this a great man? All of that was -- you know, we never know how those things settle into the brain and somehow make a part of who you become and how you -- the cumulative effect of how you run your life, but I'm certain that that was important to do. I mean, it is important to me not only to develop myself professionally.

You know, as I say to my law students, because I still teach one course at Georgetown Law School, you've got to understand any fool can pass the bar, if you look around at people who are lawyers. You can understand it, if you put enough time into it. You can do that. I think that's true of intellectuals. I think it's a more rarified, more competitive, deeper pursuit and calling where you are reading all the time to try to expand yourself, to try to understand your discipline and through it, other things. Now, we do that. Legal scholars do that as well, but it's far more precisely pointed toward narrow, narrow parts of what most people would consider the life of a human being because it's in law books, it's in the development of the law.