Celebrating Professor and Civil Rights Activist Kellis E. Parker

The first Black professor at Columbia Law School was a scholar, a jazz musician, and a beloved mentor to a generation of students.

Man in suit and tie holding law book in front of bookshelves

The year 1972 marked a new era for Columbia Law School. With the appointments of Kellis E. Parker as the first Black full-time professor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59 as the first female tenured professor, the faculty took much-needed steps to begin to reflect an increasingly diverse student body and the society in which graduates practiced.  

Parker was a mentor, a treasured colleague, and a legal scholar who brought a perspective grounded in both civil rights activism and musicianship. His trombone playing and his upbringing in the Jim Crow South were the basis of his scholarship, which used jazz as a framework for interpreting the law. 

In his music-contracts class, Parker traced improvised, customary laws created by Black communities before and after slavery—developed in a “jam-session style of democracy” and expressed in music and literature as well as in community life—as distinct from statutory laws imposed on Black Americans to enforce white supremacy. 

His 1975 casebook, Modern Judicial Remedies, incorporated civil rights remedies, such as continuing injunctions in school-desegregation cases, into the discussion of traditional common law remedies. Parker’s essays in law journals and other academic forums focused on the experience of Black students in legal education and the necessity of making higher education truly inclusive.  

Over the course of his time at the Law School, Parker mentored a generation of students, particularly a growing number of students of color. 

“He took care of us. He watched over us. He made a way for us,” said Sheena Wright CC ’90, LAW ’94 at the 2023 Paul Robeson Lecture and Alumni of Color Reception. Or, as retired Judge Rolando Acosta CC ’79, LAW ’82 put it: “He embraced us.” 

Black and white vintage photo of man in sweater stands at table in front of black board with students
Kellis Parker in the classroom.

Parker told students to believe in themselves, and to be themselves. “Have faith in your own intellectual worth. You are winners. You will continue to win so long as you retain confidence in your ability to do well in law school,” he said in a talk to incoming students sponsored by the Black Law Students Association. “Popular lore will tell you that excellence comes from the degree to which one approximates complete conformity. In my opinion, the students who develop their own personal touch radiate a perceptible brilliance which law professors find to be irresistible.”

Parker influenced not only his students but also his colleagues. “Kellis Parker was a teacher of intellectual liberation, a mentor who got the best from everyone, a musician who improved everybody else’s playing,” Professor of Law Eben Moglen said in a remembrance after Parker’s death. “He knew how to lead without standing in front. He could make things happen without giving directions. He made everything rhyme, without even choosing the words.” 

Kellis Parker playing with his band, Funky Bud, at Columbia in 1997
Kellis Parker playing with his band, Funky Bud, at Columbia in 1997.
Learn more about Kellis Parker’s life and achievements below. 

Kellis E. Parker 1942–2000

“He was just such an important part of our lives. … The thing that I remember the most about Kellis is that he loved us.” —Anne Williams-Isom ’91 


A Music-Filled Beginning

Born in Kinston, N.C. His parents, Maceo and Novella, run the only Black-owned dry cleaner in the county. Taught by their parents, Kellis and his brothers Maceo and Melvin form a jazz trio—Kellis on trombone, Maceo on trumpet, and Melvin on drums. “We were the Parker brothers, the rhythm kids of East End Dry Cleaners,” Parker wrote later. The store was filled with music, Parker recalled in his unpublished memoir, The East End Dry Cleaners Hello Blues, named after the musical way his father answered the phone. Maceo and Melvin go on to become professional musicians.


Asking for More

Parker later called his hometown in the segregated South “as much law school as music school,” a place where he learned to distinguish between the mores of the Black community and the laws designed to oppress them. As a high school student, Parker persuades the Kinston Chamber of Commerce to end the practice of placing Black marching bands at the back of a local parade. 


Becoming an Activist

Parker enters the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of five Black students in the class and among the very first classes to be integrated. He is active in student government and is the first Black student elected to a campuswide office. As a junior, Parker helps form Citizens United for Racial Equality and Dignity to integrate Chapel Hill businesses. With the local NAACP, he organizes picketing of a segregated art-house movie theater, and is one of 32 people arrested after a sit-in at Clarence’s Bar & Grill, a whites-only tavern in Chapel Hill. 


Legal Training

Attends Howard Law School, where he becomes editor of The Barrister, the law school newspaper, and editor in chief of the Howard Law Journal.


Finding a Mentor

Clerks for Judge Spottswood W. Robinson III of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. A former civil rights lawyer who was one of the attorneys arguing Brown v. Board of Education, Robinson was appointed to the federal bench and was one of the first Black federal judges.


Entering the Academy

At Judge Robinson’s suggestion, Parker joins the law faculty at the University of California, Davis. In addition to teaching, he directs the Martin Luther King Program, a research center focused on issues of poverty. Parker also directs the UC Davis School of Law’s first summer prelaw program organized by the Council on Legal Education Opportunity, a pipeline program founded in 1968 to expand opportunities for underrepresented students to attend law school.


Breaking a Path at Columbia Law School

Appointed by Michael I. Sovern to the Columbia Law faculty, Parker becomes Columbia Law School’s first Black professor. He tells the Columbia Daily Spectator he is attracted to teaching at Columbia for its “excellence” and its location in a large Black community. His appointment comes two months after Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59 is named the first female tenured professor at the Law School.

"His mere presence, the lone dark-skinned man in a sea of white faculty faces, spoke volumes and marked a long overdue turning of the page at the Law School and the beginning of a new, somewhat more inclusive chapter in our history," Conrad Johnson, Edward Ross Aranow Clinical Professor of Law, wrote in a remembrance published in Sesquicentennial Essays of the Faculty of Columbia Law School: 1858-2008.

Vintage b/w photo of man with glasses, wide tie and wide lapels

Professional Success

Parker is granted tenure and named a full professor. He publishes Modern Judicial Remedies: Cases and Materials, the first casebook to introduce civil rights remedies into the law school curriculum.

Above, Kellis Parker in the early 1970s.


Civil Rights Work

He takes a leave of absence to spend a year as director of the Legal Defense and Education Fund (now called the Legal Defense Fund or LDF). 


A Lifelong Passion

Parker’s jazz ensemble, Together, plays at the Cotton Club on 125th Street, fronted by one of his brothers, saxophonist Maceo Parker. Parker has played in jazz groups throughout his life, he tells the Columbia Daily Spectator in an interview. “I play the trombone, every day; it’s part of my life. My work as a lawyer is inspired by that. Jazz ad-libbing requires mind expansion, which is just as valuable for the mind as jogging is for the heart.”


Diversity and the Academy

Publishes the article “Ideas, Affirmative Action, and the Ideal University” in Nova Law Review, in which he argues that universities must go beyond hiring small numbers of Black faculty members and fully incorporate Black scholarship into the university’s intellectual life. “The goal of affirmative action should be to integrate a Black ethos into the university’s personality. With this standard as the goal, questions of statistics, goals and quotas become irrelevant,” he writes. “A university that proceeds along the lines of the affirmative action debate is perpetuating the idea that the only valid intellectual ethos in American history is the white one.”


Mediating Protests

Dozens of Columbia Law students occupy the office of Law School Dean Barbara Aronstein Black to demand the hiring of more faculty of color. Parker persuades the group to stand down. “He counseled us, and he was proud of us, and he loved us. Yes, he was a professor. Yes, he taught us. But when someone loves you and takes care of you, then they can use that [influence] when you do something crazy,’’ Anne Williams-Isom ’91, who was among the student demonstrators, later recalled. “He could tell us, ‘I want you to graduate, so I really think you need to go now.’” The protest ends after 24 hours with Dean Black agreeing to some student demands for changes to the hiring process. 

Man in glasses wearing sweater gesturing at chalkboard

Jazz and the Law

Parker’s music-contracts class, Jazz Roots Revisited: The Law the Slaves Made, traces the improvised laws of Black communities, using literary and musical sources from the Br’er Rabbit folktales to Zora Neale Hurston’s writing. He asks students to identify, for example, the contractual obligations described in Frederick Douglass’s autobiography and the social norms created in jam sessions in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Above, Kellis Parker teaching.


Being a Mentor

Parker is named Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law. In his music-contracts class, a student, Brad Meltzer ’96, asks Parker to be his adviser on an independent study project, a novel. “Keep going, baby,” Parker says. The novel, The Tenth Justice, is a bestseller, the first of many for Meltzer. “It just takes one person saying yes,” Meltzer told Columbia Magazine in 2023. “I’ll forever be thankful to Kellis Parker.”

Vintage snapshot of man playing electric guitar next to man holding trombone and singing into a microphone

Summer Jam Session

Parker taught almost every year in Columbia Law’s Summer Program in American Law in Leiden, Netherlands. In his last year, on the first Friday night of the program, Parker rounded up 40 students and faculty and led an impromptu jam session at a local club, featuring, among others, Edward Ross Aranow Clinical Professor of Law Conrad Johnson on a borrowed electric guitar. The chorus of students filled in for the horn section on the James Brown tune "Pass the Peas."

“It was magical and it epitomized Kellis,” Johnson wrote in a remembrance after Parker’s death. “The evening was possible because Kellis was a whole person. He was not surprised that lawyers could also be artists who, if given the chance, would be happy to share their talents. He did not segregate the facets of his being. He was not simply or solely a law professor or musician or political activist. He was Kellis: a whole person with many talents, all indispensable parts of the whole. Each nurtured the other parts of his soul and ours." 

Above, Conrad Johnson and Kellis Parker making music in Leiden.


Gone Too Soon

Parker dies unexpectedly on October 10, 2000, of acute respiratory distress. At his memorial service, Kendall Thomas, Nash Professor of Law, says Parker taught him to view working in law as “a calling.”

“For Kellis, the life of the intellectual was a life of struggle and resistance alongside those who seek freedom, equality, and justice,” Thomas said. “Kellis Parker taught me that standing with the wretched of the earth, knowing whose side you are on, brings its own rewards.” 

The Class of 2001 awards Parker the Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching in memoriam. Friends and family create the Kellis E. Parker Teaching Fellowship, a teaching and research stipend to support young legal professionals, particularly those of color, to consider academic careers. 


Further Reading and Sources

Modern Judicial Remedies: Cases and Materials by Kellis E. Parker (1975)
Ideas, Affirmative Action, and the Ideal University” by Kellis E. Parker, Nova Law Review, Vol. 10, No. 2 (1986)
In Memoriam: Kellis Parker,” Columbia Law Review, Vol. 101, No. 4 (2001)
Kellis Parker papers, Special Collections, Columbia University Libraries