Roberta Kaplan, United States V. Windsor Attorney
In this MAKERS interview, attorney Roberta (Robbie) Kaplan talks about why she chose to take on the landmark Edie Windsor case, what made the case personal, and the Supreme Court's landmark decision, ruling the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.
Roberta Kaplan, United States V. Windsor Attorney
- Just being on a construction site is being bold. You have all of these men just staring at you, and you have to walk in like, "I belong here," because they look at you like you don't belong. So I used to have this philosophy of fake it 'til you make it, and now I just own it. I grew up in Trinidad and Tobago. I grew up with my great grandmother because my mom didn't want to raise me, and I didn't have a lot of confidence in myself. I used to wish that I wasn't here on the planet, but my great grandmother, she motivated me, and she would tell me, "You are here for a reason." I fell in love with plumbing. I really did. I get to create things with my hands, and I get to solve a puzzle. It's not just toilets. It's hospitals, schools. Einstein said if he ever have to come back in another life, he would be a plumber, because it's a noble craft. Being a woman, a black woman in plumbing, it's very difficult because right away, the roles that you get is the one of coffee. Unloading, nobody would give you the opportunity to be the girl working with the mechanic to read the prints and figure out how this beautiful thing called plumbing is done. So I waited for like, they must go to the bathroom at some point, right? So when the guys went to the bathroom, I started doing the tasks that they were performing, So I could show them that I'm capable. And as a woman, you can be sexually harassed, but I tend to use humor to change situations. A lot of times, I tell them, "Isn't it amazing? "You're six feet two, and I'm what? Four feet eleven, "and we get the same paycheck? Boom." I seen so many women come in and leave. I made a conscious effort to reach out to all the girls now. When I see them at the union meeting, I tell them, "The days when you want to cry and you want to leave, "call me, and maybe I can get you over that hurdle." I truly love the union, because this is the one field where I'm an African-American woman, I'm black, and I don't get 65 cents. I get the same as a guy. He gets a dollar, I get a dollar. Being a single mom, I knew if I didn't have the salary that I have, I would've never been able to take care of my daughter. I think we need to let girls start touching tools earlier. Just like they did with coding, and have girls coding earlier, it opens up a whole new world, that, "I can use a drill. I can put a faucet in." and they can choose to be a plumber, they can choose to be an architect, they can choose to be an electrician. I'm most proud of the fact that I lived up to my great grandmother's dream of who she said I was gonna be. She said I was gonna be a good person. She said she saw that in me, and I didn't see that in myself. She was right. I'm here for a reason.
DIANE NASH: A lot of people say, oh, you're so brave and think I wasn't afraid, and that is not true. I was really, really, afraid.
I grew up on the south side of Chicago. I went to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. That was the first time that I personally had encountered signs that said white and colored on water fountains and restrooms. It was possible for blacks to buy food in a restaurant on a carry-out basis, but you couldn't sit in the restaurant and eat it. I found that humiliating.
I did not want to be chairperson. I was afraid to be chairperson, and I remember thinking, we are facing white racist businessmen and politicians, and who are we? A group of students, 18, 19, 20 years old.
Our first sit-in was February 13. We targeted six lunch counters. People often have the impression that a group of black students would say, hey, let's have a sit-in, but there was a great deal of work and planning that went into it.
One of the things that we anticipated was that white people, segregationists, would say they didn't want to sit next to dirty, smelly Negroes in restaurants. So we developed a dress code. The young men wore suits and ties, and the women wore dresses. I got confidence in my ability to work effectively in the movement.
We had prepared for that in the workshops. Everybody who went had pledged to be nonviolent. When they announced that we were under arrest, everyone got up and walked willingly to the patrol wagon. And when the police turned around, a whole new set of demonstrators had taken seats at the lunch counter.
That very day, we organized a march to City Hall. Several thousand people marched. It was a silent march. We met the mayor.
I asked the mayor, Mayor West, do you feel that it's wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of his race or color?
BEN WEST: I could not agree that it was morally right for someone to refuse them service, and I had to answer it just exactly that way.
DIANE NASH: That was a turning point. The following day, "The Nashville Tennessean" ran a headline and it said, "Integrate Counters-- Mayor."
The movement had a way of reaching inside you and bringing out things that even you didn't know were there. You didn't have to be a man to be courageous.