Eleanor Anthony tells story of Jennifer Sokoler, former Winter Institute intern who clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice
On June 21, 2005, the State of Mississippi and its people witnessed an instance of justice that was over forty years in the making. The case against Edgar Ray Killen, Ku Klux Klan member and part-time minister, was brought to trial four decades after being tabled in 1966 due to jury deadlock. Killen was convicted of three counts of manslaughter for the killings of civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner during the “Freedom Summer” of 1964. The trial drew national attention to not only the sacrifices made by Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner, and many others like them in the fight for racial equality, but also to the need for committed community involvement in the fight for equality and justice today.
Jennifer Sokoler is a great testament to that fact. At the time of the trial, she was a student attending Barnard College who had never traveled to the American South. Neshoba County was just a place on a map for her, but, being committed to the civil rights cause, she sought out a way to become involved in the case. After making some inquiries, she was directed by the Southern Poverty Law Center to the Winter Institute, where she met the woman who would serve as an inspiration for her lifelong pursuit of justice.
Dr. Susan M. Glisson, Institute executive director, had played a critical role in forming the Philadelphia Coalition that issued the call for justice in the case of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. She also organized a educational summit in Philadelphia, Mississippi that summer, where educators, politicians, civil rights activists, and community members came together to discuss civil rights history. When Sokoler initially expressed interest in working with Glisson, she was well aware that her limited background as a college student might hurt her chances of contributing. She acknowledged, “Susan could have easily paid no attention to my call; I was just a college student at the time. But she immediately said, ‘Oh, you’re interested in my work? Come on down.’”
Sokoler did, and her summer interning at the Winter Institute came to play an important role in shaping her passions and career goals. While working in Mississippi she came to appreciate the role that law plays in organizing communities and enacting change within those communities. She also came to value the importance of communication: “To be able to explain your point of view, and understand the point of view of another, that’s how you bring about social change.” She cites these as important lessons she learned that summer, and ones that ultimately pushed her to apply to law school. She even wrote her admission essay about her time at the Winter Institute.
After graduating college, Sokoler attended Columbia Law School, and while studying there, she worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, helping prosecute crimes related to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and conducted research on global policy issues. Following graduation, she completed two clerkships, one with Southern District of New York Judge Denise Cote, and another with Second Circuit Judge Robert A. Katzmann. After completing these clerkships, Sokoler spent two years working for the Center for Reproductive Rights, in New York. In July 2014, Sokoler began serving as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Sokoler describes her work for the Supreme Court as “the best job you could ask for.” Her work included helping Justice Sotomayor prepare for oral argument and aiding her opinion writing process.
While she spent the past year of her life working for the most powerful court in the country, Sokoler is not quick to forget the people and circumstances she encountered during her time at the Winter Institute. Besides crediting the Institute as informing her career goals, she also credits much of what she learned that summer to Dr. Glisson, praising not only her encouragement of young passion and drive, but also the example she sets before everyone she encounters: “The way Susan lives her life is such an inspiration. When she encounters any type of adversity, she always maintains her unwavering commitment to equality… She is a treasure.”
Eleanor Anthony, from Jackson, Miss., is a senior in the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She is double-majoring in philosophy and mathematics, with a minor in computer science.