Eleanor Holmes Norton

By Joan Steinau Lester

As authorized by Eleanor Holmes Norton

Atria. 370 pp. $25

Eleanor Holmes Norton's roots run deep in her legislative district. In the early 1850s, her great-grandfather Richard John Holmes escaped from a Virginia plantation, made his way to Washington and found refuge in a community of free African Americans. Norton was born in Washington in 1937. She grew up at a time when public policies and private practices severely restricted the opportunities available to African Americans. "Fire in My Soul" chronicles her journey from the segregated neighborhoods in Northwest Washington to the corridors of Capitol Hill.

In writing this biography, author Joan Steinau Lester had Norton's personal cooperation and unrestricted access to the congressional delegate's friends and family. The result is a richly detailed story presented primarily from the subject's perspective.

Norton is the product of a middle-class family. Her father graduated from Syracuse University and eventually finished Howard Law School. Her mother taught in D.C. public schools. Norton was an outstanding student and a leader of several organizations. In 1955 she graduated with the last all-black class of Washington's Dunbar High School, one of the rare institutions of segregated excellence. She attended Antioch College, a center of progressive ideas and social activism, where she was one of a handful of black students. The civil rights movement was in its early stages. Before long, Norton was leading a student chapter of the NAACP and organizing sit-ins at local restaurants.

After Antioch, Norton enrolled in Yale Law School. She and Marian Wright Edelman, now head of the Children's Defense Fund, were the only black women in the entering class. While in law school, Norton was one of the founders of the New Haven chapter of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). During the summer of 1963, she went to Mississippi as a worker for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, traveled to Europe representing a student organization and worked with the organizers of the historic March on Washington, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous oration.

Norton graduated from Yale in 1964 with a law degree and a master's degree in American studies. During the "Freedom Summer" of 1964, when hundreds of volunteers traveled to Mississippi to register black voters, she and other attorneys prepared a legal challenge to Mississippi's segregated delegation at the Democratic convention in Atlantic City. That fall, she started work as a law clerk for the late A. Leon Higginbotham, one of the first African Americans appointed to the federal bench.

Norton later joined the staff of the ACLU in New York. There she specialized in First Amendment cases. To the consternation of many in civil rights circles, she represented a white supremacist group before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court's ruling in that case affirmed the group's constitutional right to utter hate speech.

In New York, Norton became a public figure. Married in 1965 to Edward Norton, a New York lawyer, she was an early feminist and a founder of groups advocating gender equality and other progressive causes. In 1970, then-Mayor John V. Lindsay recruited her to serve as the first woman commissioner of human rights for New York City. In 1977 President Carter appointed her to head the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

When Norton reported to work at the EEOC, she promptly removed the "man" from the chairman's title. When she became the "chair" of the commission, some derisively referred to her as "her furnitureship." Despite these aspersions, the title modification permanently altered the lexicon of official Washington. At the EEOC, Norton quickly gained a reputation as a forceful administrator who did not shrink from challenges. She became known for her keen intellect, sharp tongue and aggressive manner. The first sexual harassment guidelines were developed during her tenure.

When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, Norton resigned from the commission. She eventually joined the faculty at Georgetown University Law Center. In 1990, when the District's congressional delegate, Walter Fauntroy, announced his decision to retire, Norton was persuaded to enter the byzantine and racially charged world of D.C. politics. This was a controversial period in the District's political history. In the spring of 1990, then-Mayor Marion Barry was arrested for drug possession. The scandal generated front-page headlines throughout the summer. Norton's candidacy promised to restore a degree of integrity to the political arena and improve the District's sagging morale.

Norton had a commanding lead in pre-election polls when a controversy erupted in her camp. The Nortons had not filed local income tax returns over the previous seven years, an oversight Norton attributed to her husband, who handled the family's finances. Her political opponents seized the issue; Norton was harshly criticized in the editorial pages of The Washington Post, which eventually endorsed her Republican opponent.

Nevertheless, Norton prevailed by a slim margin in the primary and general elections. Within a few months, the news media and other observers began to compliment her job performance. Norton has since been consistently reelected by a loyal constituency to serve in Congress, where she is a forceful advocate and formidable presence.

There may be different interpretations of some of the events described in this book, but any disagreements would be minor. "Fire in My Soul" is an engaging narrative of the life and times of a remarkable individual.