Mississippi burning: Interview with Pat Gatling

17/07/2017

Veteran human rights lawyer Patricia Gatling speaks to Sorcha Corcoran about growing up in a racially divided America, her legal career, and policing the police.

When Patricia Gatling talks about childhood memories of growing up in Mississippi during the civil rights movement, it’s easy to understand why she was so driven to pursue a career focused on fighting for justice.

A formative moment

In 1964, when Gatling was seven years old, she and her mother went to live with her grandfather in Mississippi while her army officer father was in Vietnam. Her grandfather was a cotton farmer but had never voted, even though he had owned the land and paid taxes for 50 years.

That summer, under the leadership of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organised voter registration drives all over the south. By the time of the election in the autumn, Gatling’s grandfather felt comfortable to vote.

“My grandfather didn’t read that well and he asked me to go with him to read the ballot paper and make sure he didn’t make a mistake,” she says. “My mother cried because it was the first time he had voted. He felt for the first time in his life that the country was his. Hands that picked cotton could now pick legislators.”

Fighting for human rights

With experience like that to draw on, it's little wonder that she was inspired to apply her talents in working for human rights. Gatling chaired and managed the Human Rights Commission in New York for 13 years and has been both a prosecutor and a civil rights lawyer. She is a practising attorney at law firm Windels Marx in New York.

An active participant in community outreach programmes, Gatling is a widely respected speaker and was the executive producer of the documentary series ‘Fighting for Justice: New York Voices of the Civil Rights Movement’.

During a visit to Ireland, Ms Gatling spoke to the Gazette at length about her life, career, and the ongoing struggle for human rights.

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