The Museum of African Amer­ican His­tory, Boston and Nan­tucket, recently hon­ored North­eastern Uni­ver­sity law pro­fessor Mar­garet Burnham with its “Living Legend” award. Burnham, who received the award at a gala in Boston on March 7, was rec­og­nized for her work as a civil rights lawyer, edu­cator, and activist, as well as for being the first African Amer­ican woman to serve in the Mass­a­chu­setts judiciary.

The Living Legend awards “salute extra­or­di­nary trail­blazers whose remark­able accom­plish­ments uphold the legacy of 18th– and 19th-​​century black patriots and their col­leagues who dis­tin­guished them­selves on behalf of freedom and jus­tice,” according to the museum’s web­site. In addi­tion to Burnham, actor and human­i­tarian Harry Bela­fonte and former Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino also received Living Leg­ends awards this year. They were pre­sented with the Gar­rison Silver Cup, a replica of the symbol of freedom pre­sented by Boston’s black leaders to the founder of the New Eng­land Anti-​​slavery Society and Lib­er­ator news­paper pub­lisher in 1833.

It’s a sub­lime expe­ri­ence to be hon­ored by the Museum of African Amer­ican His­tory, which links us to such tran­scen­dent moments in the Amer­ican expe­ri­ence, and to such mag­nif­i­cent voices of courage, like those of William Lloyd Gar­rison and Fred­erick Dou­glass,” Burnham said. “One always hopes that one’s work mat­ters in the world, and trib­utes such as this one con­firm that someone is lis­tening and someone is learning. At the end of the day, though, the award is really a direc­tive to keep on working.”

Northeastern law professor Margaret Burnham, right, with actor and humanitarian Harry Belafonte at the Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket, 2014 Living Legends Awards gala on March 7. Photo courtesy of the Museum of African American History.

North­eastern law pro­fessor Mar­garet Burnham, right, with actor and human­i­tarian Harry Bela­fonte at the Museum of African Amer­ican His­tory, Boston and Nan­tucket, 2014 Living Leg­ends Awards gala on March 7. Photo cour­tesy of Craig Bailey, Per­spec­tive Photo.

Burnham—an expert on civil and human rights, com­par­a­tive con­sti­tu­tional rights, and inter­na­tional crim­inal law—joined the School of Law’s fac­ulty in 2002. She is the founder of the law school’s Civil Rights and Restora­tive Jus­tice Project, which engages stu­dents in legal mat­ters relating to the 1960s U.S. civil rights move­ment. In 2010, she headed a team of out­side counsel and law stu­dents in a land­mark case that set­tled a fed­eral law­suit: Burnham’s team accused Franklin County Mis­sis­sippi law enforce­ment offi­cials of assisting Klansmen in the kid­nap­ping, tor­ture, and murder of two 19-​​year-​​olds, Henry Dee and Charles Eddie Moore. The case and set­tle­ment received national headlines.

Burnham began her career at the NAACP Legal Defense and Edu­ca­tional Fund. In the 1970s, she rep­re­sented civil rights and polit­ical activists. In 1977, she became the first African Amer­ican woman to serve in the Mass­a­chu­setts judi­ciary, when she joined the Boston Munic­ipal Court bench as an asso­ciate jus­tice. In 1982, she became partner in a Boston civil rights firm with an inter­na­tional human rights prac­tice. In 1993, South African pres­i­dent Nelson Man­dela appointed Burnham to serve on an inter­na­tional human rights com­mis­sion to inves­ti­gate alleged human rights vio­la­tions within the African National Con­gress. The com­mis­sion was a pre­cursor to the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Commission.

Over the course of her illus­trious career, she has written exten­sively on con­tem­po­rary legal and polit­ical issues.

Mar­garet Burnham truly is a legend for her life­time of path-​​breaking accom­plish­ments as a lawyer, judge, teacher, and scholar, but what most inspires her friends and col­leagues are her daily dis­plays of sound judg­ment, tire­less lead­er­ship, and pas­sionate devo­tion to the cause of jus­tice,” said Jeremy Paul, dean of the School of Law. “We are proud North­eastern has long been her pro­fes­sional home.”