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Legal Scholar Shares How Family Influenced Her Teaching and Path Into Law

Sheryll Cashin

Law professor Sheryll Cashin says her family's legacy impacted her career path.

September 2, 2008 – Law professor Sheryll Cashin went to jail when she was just 4 months old.

She had been with her mother, Joan Cashin, who had been arrested for participating in civil rights sit-ins in Huntsville, Ala.

She slept like the baby she was through the incident, but other experiences led the future academic to keep up the fight her mother, father and other family members began as far back as the 1800s.

Her new book The Agitator’s Daughter: A Memoir of Four Generations of One Extraordinary African-American Family (PublicAffairs, 2008) chronicles the experiences of her own family – from slavery through the post-civil rights era.

It’s a departure from the legal scholar’s usual writings, which include The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class are Undermining the American Dream (PublicAffairs, 2004).

She writes from a more personal perspective in The Agitator’s Daughter about her great-grandfather Herschel Cashin, who was elected to the Alabama State Legislature during Reconstruction and became one of the first black lawyers in the state.

“I was enormously proud to be the descendant of a man who managed to pursue a profession I longed to enter, and I marveled that he did it at a time when most blacks seemed to be oppressed by the law,” says Cashin, who worked as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the 1980s. She also worked in the Clinton White House as an urban and economic policy advisor.

Triumphs of Activism

The Cashins were gutsy. Their activism would lead to economic ruin and death threats, including a bullet through the family’s living room window. But through it all, there were definitely moments of triumph.

After Cashin finished Harvard Law and Oxford University. She took the Alabama State Bar Exam. And while she never planned to practice law in the state, she says she now relishes the fact that she’s a member of that state’s bar, since her uncle – also named Herschel after their common ancestor – was refused that honor in the 1950s because of his race.

“That meant a lot to me, to be admitted to the Alabama Bar,” Cashin says. “I remember the ceremony. I was consciously thinking about the fact that my Uncle Herschel had been kept out of practicing law.”

Race and American Law

Cashin teaches constitutional law, local government law and property law and will teach a new course, Race and American Law, this fall.

The course will give her more of a direct opportunity to share some of her family’s contributions to American legal history. Her father’s political party, the National Democratic Party of Alabama, brought the 1969 case Hadnott v. Amos to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that Alabama state officials had no right to keep the party’s candidates off the ballot.

Additionally, her great-uncle, Newlyn Cashin testified for the defense in the infamous 1930s Scottsboro case, in which nine black youths were falsely accused of raping two white women. His testimony, Cashin says, ultimately led to the High Court decision in Norris v. Alabama that said African Americans had been unlawfully excluded from the Scottsboro jury.

“In following my family’s trajectory through the arc of American race struggles,” Cashin says, “I celebrate the generations of African American strivers who endured and thrived in the 19th and 20th centuries.”

Related Information

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