Gaby Kirk McDonald
Gabrielle Kirk McDonald’s parents were very young when she was born in 1942 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her mother had just graduated high school and her father, who had attended one year of college, worked as a dining car waiter for the railroad following service in World War II. They lived in a small apartment above a mortuary, but didn’t stay there long. By the time Gabrielle was four, her parents divorced. Her younger brother went to live with grandparents in St. Paul and Gabrielle went with her mother to Washington, D.C. They took up residence in an apartment in a poor neighborhood, where Gabrielle was most often with sitters while her mother worked. Before long, Gabrielle’s mother’s dreams of being an actress lured her to New York. They lived in Harlem and Gabrielle’s mother worked as a secretary for newspapers and magazines and at one point worked for the United Nations. She was often the understudy for plays off-Broadway.
“My mother was the center of my life,” she says. “We were alone for a long time and she influenced me in many ways. She was half white and her skin color, unlike mine, was light enough that she could have passed for white, but she never chose that path. Instead, she spoke out against racial injustices. She was a fireball and I admired her tenacity, her sense of being a survivor.”
Gabrielle’s mother had always wanted a college education, but was never able to afford it for herself. She often took classes at night and told her young daughter that education was something that could never be taken away. She encouraged Gabrielle to do well in school. When Gabrielle was eight, she and her mother moved to Riverdale, New York, where they lived in a high-rise apartment. In this white neighborhood, the apartment manager rented easily to Gabrielle’s mother, but wanted them to leave when she saw Gabrielle. They stayed, but their time in Riverdale was a difficult period for Gabrielle. Racial slurs were shouted at her and she often felt rejected and inferior. Finally, she ran away with a girlfriend. A policeman found her and returned her to her mother, who then sent her to St. Paul to spend time with her grandparents.
Gabrielle had spent every summer with her grandparents in Minnesota and she was very close to them. “My grandmother was a rock,” she says. “You knew she was in charge and that you were being taken care of when you were with her.” Gabrielle attended an all-black Catholic school and enjoyed her grandparents’ all-black neighborhood. “I stayed there for over a year and had a solid group of friends,” she says. “Then my mother remarried and I returned to New York. My brother also came to live with us. It was a big adjustment for me. We lived in a very bad neighborhood where I saw people selling drugs regularly. My school was a tough place, much like the blackboard jungle. I remember once coming out for a fire drill and seeing a chalk outline of a dead person. Crime was all around us and everyone seemed to accept that. It was a scary time for me and more than once I ran all the way home.”
When she was in high school, the family moved to Teaneck, New Jersey. Gabrielle was one of two blacks in her class. She felt her separateness keenly, but put that aside and participated fully in her studies and extracurricular activities. Tall and a natural athlete, she played field hockey and was president of the girls leadership club. Her yearbook states that she is one of the “nicest” and “most liked girls” in the class.
Gabrielle chose to attend Boston University, where she worked in the school kitchen. She joined an all-black sorority and was president of her pledge class. In the summer she worked with the New York telephone company. After three semesters she transferred to Hunter College, where the tuition was very low but the classes were demanding and challenging. Gabrielle began to realize that if she wanted to go forward she would have to produce. She worked hard in her history major and was admitted to the honor society.
In 1961, Gabrielle attended a conference that celebrated the 100-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. She listened to speakers from Howard University and was immediately inspired to be a part of the civil rights movement. She applied and was accepted to Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C., where she began to flourish not only as a student but also as a person in her own right. “For the first time since I entered high school I didn’t have to look around and see no one like me,” she says. “Everyone was like me.” She delved into her studies and worked as a research assistant. In her second year she earned a scholarship from the Ford Foundation. She went on to serve as secretary of the student bar association and was associate editor of the law journal. She graduated cum laude and first in her class.
In starting her career, Gabrielle knew she wanted to be a civil rights lawyer. “I didn’t want to do anything else,” she says. “I think it’s important to find what it is that you are committed to with your heart and soul. Find what makes you passionate and then pursue it.” Judge McDonald has taught many law classes over the years and she cautions her students not to be intimidated by those who are successful. “I do not want them to gauge their ability by assuming they must possess my skills. I have learned a lot and developed with each new experience. I never expected to be a judge. I pursued my passion, which was civil rights, and that led me to many opportunities. But you prepare in incremental steps. If you do the job that is at hand, you are preparing for the next step. I didn’t know I was preparing to be a judge, but when that call came, I was ready for it.”
Judge McDonald says she is honored by her Horatio Alger Award. “I have attended the Awards program before,” she says. “I have listened to the student scholarship recipients and have been humbled by their stories. They touched me and strengthened me. These students are setting an example. My advice to them is to do what I finally had to do for myself—honor who and what you are. “When I was young, as a racial minority I was very conscious of being different. Yet, it is these differences that enrich our lives and we should appreciate and respect them.”
Making a difference has always been the cornerstone of Judge McDonald’s goals. She accomplished that in her work as a civil rights lawyer and as a judge in a federal court and international tribunal. Now she is still trying to make a difference. Soon, she hopes to support student interns in the international tribunal. “I no longer teach, but I want to find a way to keep giving back,” she says. “I want young people to know it is all possible. I didn’t just wake up at 17 and become an international judge. You start by getting an education. As my mother always said, no one can take that away from you.”
One of the most influential judges of our day, Gabrielle Kirk McDonald began her career as a civil rights lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York City. In 1969 she set up in practice with Mark McDonald, her then husband, in Houston, Texas. Their practice, built up over 10 years, was in employment discrimination cases against major corporations and labor unions. She became the mother of two children, Michael and Stacy, and taught at various law schools.
In 1979, at the age of 37, McDonald was appointed a Federal District Judge for the Southern District of Texas by President Carter. She was the first African-American to be appointed to the federal bench in Texas and only the third African-American woman to be appointed in the country. During her tenure until 1988, Judge McDonald took part on a number of high profile cases. At one point she was asked to recuse herself on racial grounds in a case in which a group of Vietnamese fishermen sued the Ku Klux Klan for harassing and intimidating them over access to shrimp stocks in the Gulf of Mexico. She refused to recuse herself and heard the case in the face of death threats to herself and her family. She found in favor of the fishermen and ruled that the Klan cease its harassment and close its paramilitary training camps.
Upon leaving the bench, Judge McDonald resumed private practice in Austin, dealing with employment discrimination defense work and again taught law. In 1993 she returned to the bench when she was elected by the General Assembly of the United Nations to deal with the atrocities of the war in the former Yugoslavia, receiving the most votes of all candidates. “We met in The Hague in 1993,” she says, “and we had nothing. I came with a set of rules and procedures proposed by the United States and we used that as a working draft. We had to start from scratch, but it was all as fascinating as it was challenging. All of my previous legal experience served me in good stead.” In 1997, Judge McDonald was elected by her fellow judges to serve as president of the tribunal. It was during this time that she took solace in a book that had belonged to her grandmother, Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking. “That book has so much to offer,” she says. “It helped me to visualize where I wanted us to be, and gave me the belief that I could do anything. I needed the support it gave me.”
When she left the Tribunal she became Special Counsel for Human Rights to the chairman of the board of Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. She also became a judge with the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal, which is also set up in The Netherlands. This arbitral tribunal was created in 1981 to resolve claims that resulted from the hostage crisis.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once said of Judge McDonald, “She was one of the pioneer civil rights litigators in our country. She has since become a pioneer justice for international war crimes law. I am confident that she will continue to be a voice for justice wherever she goes.” These words have deep meaning for Judge McDonald, who from the very beginning set out to make a difference in the world. “We’re here for a reason,” she says. “We have to do something for each other and ourselves. I think success is about making a contribution, making a difference.”
Gabrielle Kirk McDonald’s distinguished career has spanned the globe. She has served as a civil rights lawyer, a law professor, a federal judge, and the president for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. In all these roles McDonald has shown a passion for justice and has used the rule of law to combat injustice. As she has explained, “I believe in the rule of law not just intellectually. It’s visceral for me. It’s in my heart and soul…it’s what protects people from anarchy.”
Born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1942, McDonald was raised in Manhattan and Teaneck, New Jersey. She attended Boston University (1959-1961) and Hunter College (1961-1963), and then, without the benefit of an undergraduate degree, enrolled in Howard University School of Law, where she finished first in the class of 1966. She applied only to Howard because she wanted to go to the law school that had been the cradle of the civil rights movement. As she has said, “I never wanted to be a lawyer; I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer.”
On graduating, McDonald began her career as a staff lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She worked in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Texas to assist litigants and local lawyers with school desegregation, housing, and voting rights cases. She also worked on some of the first employment discrimination cases under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
From 1969 to 1979 she was in private practice in Houston, where she specialized in employment discrimination cases. One of her frequent opponents in court, a management-side defense lawyer, said of her, “She must be the best in the South, if not better.”
In 1979, McDonald was nominated by President Jimmy Carter to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. She was the first African American to be appointed in Texas and just the third African-American woman federal judge in the United States. While on the bench she presided over a major case in which Vietnamese fishermen sued to protect their rights against the harassment of the Ku Klux Klan. Ignoring death threats, her decision supported the fishermen’s suit and led to the closing of KKK paramilitary camps.
McDonald resigned from the court in 1988 to resume private practice and the teaching of law. During her earlier years in private practice she had taught law, primarily at Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, and also at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin and at St. Mary’s School of Law in San Antonio. After leaving the bench, she resumed her career at Thurgood Marshall and St. Mary’s.
In 1993, McDonald agreed to stand as the U.S. candidate for a judgeship on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The U.N. General Assembly considered 22 candidates for 11 positions. McDonald received the highest number of votes, becoming the sole American on the court and one of only two women. The mission of the tribunal was to seek justice for victims of ethnic and religious persecution, especially in Croatia and Bosnia.
Judge McDonald presided over the first full war crimes trial of the tribunal, which was the first one conducted since Nuremberg after World War II. The work of the court helped create a body of law that could be the legal foundation for other war crimes tribunals. In McDonald’s view, her work on the tribunal was ultimately about healing. “Without justice,” she has said, “there can be no lasting peace.”
In May 1997, McDonald was re-elected for a second term on the tribunal, and in November of that year was nominated and endorsed by the judges on the court as its president and presiding judge for the next two years. When she left the court at the expiration of her term, it had become a fully functioning institution that had developed what is essentially a code of international criminal procedure. After leaving the court, McDonald became Special Counsel to the Chairman on Human Rights for the international mining firm of Freeport-McMorRan Copper & Gold, Inc.
When McDonald entered law school, there were only 142 African-American women lawyers in the entire United States. Through her illustrious career as a lawyer, teacher, and judge, she has inspired countless young people to follow in the paths she has blazed. McDonald has received numerous honorary degrees from institutions such as Georgetown University, the University of Notre Dame, and Amherst College. She has also received the Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award from the American Bar Association.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright summed up McDonald’s remarkable career when presenting her with the Leadership Award from the Central Eastern European Law Initiative: Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, she said, “…was one of the pioneer civil rights litigators in our country. And she has since become a pioneer justice of international war crimes law…. I am confident that she will continue to be a voice for justice wherever she goes.”