As a young man, John Burris was dramatically impacted by the Little Rock Nine crisis. And he will never forget the images of snarling police dogs attacking African American civil rights demonstrators.
Today, the prominent Oakland civil rights attorney serves as a voice for victims of discrimination, abuse of power and negligence. He talked about his career, various cases he’s worked on, and the importance of landmark laws like the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act with students in Tony Green’s African American history class on September 28. His wife, Cheryl Amana-Burris – a professor of law at North Carolina Central University School of Law – was also on hand and spoke about her work.
“The issues I was fighting about when I was young are now front and center and will affect your lives,” he said, referencing 2013 changes to the Voting Rights Act that many say disenfranchise minority voters.
Over the years, Burris has worked on a number of high-profile cases including Rodney King, Tupac Shakur, Oscar Grant, the Oakland Riders, and most recently Seattle Seahawk Michael Bennett, who has a pending police brutality case.
Born and raised in Vallejo, Burris earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Golden Gate University and worked as an accountant for several years. But he found the work uninspiring. He decided to become a lawyer to make a difference. “I feel it is my calling to represent people,” he said.
“My role is not just to sue, but to also bring about change so that you and others like you don’t feel the impact of injustice,” he said. “Law is not static. It moves with each generation.”
Burris is a past O’Dowd parent and the grandparent of current students.