Forging your path: Rashida Richardson on the Dee and Moore case, and creating a career niche in AI

If Rashida Richardson (NUSL ’11) has a motto it might be “you just have to figure it out.”

She figured out her place in history, growing up in 1990s New York and Connecticut with thanks to her “home homework” on Black history set by her father.

She figured out her unique career trajectory, after a brief stint in policymaking in D.C. ended that dream and refocused her attention on Northeastern Law.

She figured out a niche in the nascent field of artificial intelligence upon graduating in an economic environment still grappling with the fallout from the Great Recession.

“I don’t think it was as intentional as some people in my class, of wanting to be a civil rights litigator, but there was a lot nurtured in me over time that directed me on that route,” said Richardson, now a law and technology policy expert, in a recent interview with CRRJ.

The grandchild of “Great Migration people,” Richardson said she “always had an appreciation and understanding of my place as a Black person in this country and the history that comes from that.”

She earned a bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University, Connecticut, and the College of Social Studies, an interdisciplinary major of Economics, Government, History and Social Theory. Richardson, who researches the social and civil rights implications of AI and other data-driven technologies, took a semester off before graduating from Wesleyan to work in D.C., but admitted that at that point she didn’t know what professional path to take.

“That’s why Northeastern Law was a good fit,” she said, “because I thought I’d figure it out at the end of three years, after completing the co-op program, and because of the way that the program was structured.”

Heading straight to law school in 2008 at the height of the recession, Richardson said she “came to Northeastern Law with a passion for public interest law, but I was very idealistic. I didn’t really know what being a ‘civil rights warrior’ entailed.”

Richardson joined CRRJ in her first year at Northeastern, in 2009. At this time, CRRJ existed for two short years, and its innovative pedagogy and focus was still being fine-tuned. Richardson was recruited by a friend and mentor, further along in their legal education, who had previously worked as a research assistant for Professor Margaret Burnham, CRRJ’s director and founder.

“The Dee Moore case was headed to summary judgment,” and Richardson “and my friend knew that Margaret needed more worker bees.”

On May 2, 1964, Henry Hezekiah Dee, a 20-year-old millworker, and Charles Eddie Moore, a 19-year-old college student, were abducted from Meadville by Ku Klux Klan members, tortured and drowned in an oxbow lake formed by the Mississippi River.

Their bodies were found on July 12, 1964, while authorities were dredging the lake in search for Freedom Summer volunteers James Chaney, Andy Goodman and Micky Schwerner.

Although the FBI conducted an investigation in 1964, it would take further digging by Canadian filmmaker David Rigden and Moore’s brother, Thomas Moore, to bring the case to light. Subsequently, Richardson, Burnham and others at CRRJ were able to secure a conviction in the Dee Moore case, more than 40 years after the double homicide.

“I was taking federal courts that semester, which teaches the type of complex litigation they were dealing with in that case. I was learning the actual law as I was doing it,” said Richardson, who supported the legal efforts at a pivotal time in the litigation process.

Her research was intrinsic in moving the case forward to trial. “I had done archival work in my undergraduate studies, so I was a good fit even though I was green,” said Richardson.

Research historical cases of racially-motivated homicide on the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive

About the Archive

The Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive houses case files and documents for more than 1,000 cases of racial homicides in the Jim Crow South. Co-founded by Melissa Nobles, professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Margaret Burnham, CRRJ director and professor of law at Northeastern, these uncovered stories highlight how violence affected lives, defined legal rights and shaped politics between 1930 and 1954.

A woman who attended a dedication ceremony for a new Mississippi historical marker walks by the marker on Thursday, July 15, 2021, in Meadville, Miss. The sign provides information about the 1964 Ku Klux Klan kidnapping and killing of Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee. Law enforcement officers found the bodies of the two Black teenagers in the Mississippi River while searching for three civil rights workers who had been kidnapped and killed by the Klan in June 1964 in a different part of Mississippi. A reputed Klansman, James Ford Seale, was convicted in 2007 in federal court in Jackson, Miss., on charges of kidnapping and conspiracy related to the fatal abduction of Dee and Moore. Seale died in prison in 2011. Emily Wagster Pettus/AP
A dedication ceremony for a new Mississippi historical marker was held Thursday, July 15, 2021, in Meadville, Miss. Photo by Emily Wagster Pettus/AP.

While working on the Dee and Moore case, as well as the 1960 killing of Mattie Green in Georgia, preliminary research for broader CRRJ projects like military cases, truth and reconciliation processes, the Emmett Till Bill, Richardson’s eagerness to learn meant she was also tasked with “figuring out the methodology for the clinic,” she said.

This entailed visiting the Central Boston Public Library, looking through archives of old Black newspapers, “figuring out which sources to use for CRRJ’s cases,” she said. “We were trying to figure it out and see if there was something there.”

Richardson was also known as “the website guru,” she said, although she professed that she knew only a little HTML and was not that skilled. “It’s funny because now I work in tech,” she said, “but back then I managed our website and figured out what we could and could not put out publicly. There was a lot of infrastructural stuff that now seems like a natural part of the program, but that all had to be developed.”

RICHARDSON SPOKE ABOUT HER TIME AT CRRJ AT THE BURNHAM-NOBLES DIGITAL ARCHIVE LAUNCH IN FALL 2022.

After graduating from Northeastern, Richardson took the California Bar and, characteristically, she “just moved out there and was like ‘I’ll figure it out.’” She landed a job at Facebook, pre-IPO, but quickly realized it was not a professional environment in which she could flourish.

Moving back to New York, Richardson worked for The Center for HIV Law and Policy for a few years, before making a transition in 2014 that would shape her current career trajectory.

Joining the New York affiliate of the ACLU (NYCLU), Richardson said she began focusing on the intersection of civil right and technology issues. “They needed someone to start researching drones,” she said, “and I kept raising my hand for all the tech issues because it was of interest. Over time I became the expert on that and started to see intersections with other issues I worked on.”

Richardson said her time working directly with CRRJ made her adaptable, and able to “figure it out, work and build out.”

Now the NYCLU has a robust civil rights and technology portfolio that she created and developed.

Richardson went on to serve as the director of policy research for the AI Now Institute, senior policy advisor for data and democracy at the Biden Administration’s White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and attorney advisor to the Chair of the Federal Trade Commission, Lina Khan.

More recently, Richardson was hired by Northeastern Law as an Assistant Professor of Law and Political Science. She is currently on leave, serving as senior counsel, artificial intelligence at Mastercard, and caring for her newborn daughter.

“In AI, there is no law. You must think about how the legal system should react or adapt to these changes,” she said. “To do that thinking you have to have critical social, legal and political analysis skills, which you get from working in CRRJ and understanding the conditions that created the environment in which racialized violence can happen without retribution.”

Richardson remains on CRRJ’s board and is active in her support for the program.

“It’s not just the cases or very concrete skills that you’re told you learn in law school,” said Richardson, “but it’s the more immersive experience and interpersonal aspects that can really impact how you lawyer.”

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