Emerging Scholars: Blazing A Path of Distinction

Blazing A Path of Distinction

Law

Spencer A. Overton
Title: Associate Professor of Law, George Washington University Law School
Education: J.D., Harvard University Law School; B.A., Mass Media/Journalism
Age: 37

By the time Spencer Overton’s first book, Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression, appears in U.S. bookstores this spring, the 37-year-old George Washington University law school professor will have capped off an impressive chapter in his young career as a scholar. From winning tenure at the Washington, D.C.,-based law school in early 2004 to serving on a national commission on voting law reform over last spring and summer, and helping launch Blackprof.com, an influential African-American-run Internet blog, this past fall, Overton has shown he’s got the political savvy, intellectual depth and personal courage to become a leading public intellectual and influential legal activist.

“Professor Overton has distinguished himself both inside the classroom and outside in the public sphere,” says Roger Fairfax, a fellow George Washington University law school professor.

A noted expert on campaign finance and voting rights law, Overton made waves last year after serving as a commissioner on the Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform and making known his dissenting view on the voter identification process issue. On www.carterbakerdissent.com, Overton published his arguments on why a proposed requirement of voter identification photo cards would prove highly exclusionary for many American citizens.

Overton began his full-time academic teaching career in 2000, when he joined the University of California, Davis law school faculty. He had already worked as a clerk to federal district court judge Damon Keith in Detroit, participated in political campaigns in Michigan and worked in law firms in Detroit and Washington, D.C., after graduating from Harvard Law School. The Detroit native did not initially plan for a career in academia, but was urged to apply for a Harvard fellowship program by a former professor, Frank Michelman.

“I was at a point in my career where teaching appealed to me
because I could have the freedom to determine my own agenda and work on public issues,” Overton says.

Accepted as a Charles Hamilton Houston Fellow at Harvard, Overton worked on his legal research writing skills with Michelman and co-taught a course on “Law and the Political Process” with professor Lani Guinier. “It was a great experience” working with Michelman and others on the legal research and writing, he says.

“Spencer’s a self-starter. I’ve known him from the time he began law school,” Michelman says.

Overton’s life today, as a professor and a Harvard graduate,
contrasts starkly with the reality of his teen years. He is candid about the anger, alienation and deep confusion he experienced as a teen growing up in a middle-class home in Southfield, a suburb of Detroit. He took advanced courses in elementary and middle school, but began to drift away from academics. By eighth and ninth grade, Overton was struggling in school.

The young Overton sensed a strong racial divide and a prevalent indifference towards Black students at his school. Overton grew divided over his own social identity, preferring more and more the company of the “cool” Black students for whom academics were a low priority.

Despite finishing high school with a 1.8 GPA. Overton managed to gain admission to historically Black Hampton University, where he began to turn his life around. In his first semester, he had a 4.0 grade point average resulting from being inspired by his peers and professors to excel. “I felt like I could do well and fit in socially. [Hampton] deracialized the academic environment for me. It took race out of the equation.”

By Ronald Roach



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