Malissa Burnette, '71, '77: Seeking Justice for All
Malissa Burnette, '71, '77, doesn’t walk away when she sees something wrong. She faces it head on. She has taken on the Ku Klux Klan, been a champion for the women’s rights movement, worked in a prison, and was part of a groundbreaking lawsuit with one of South Carolina’s most prestigious educational institutions. Malissa is a partner with the Callison Tighe law firm in Columbia, South Carolina, and even before she began practicing law, she had history of standing up for those who are discriminated against in a constant quest for social justice.
“Social justice is a combination of both legal rights and social acceptance, and I think they have to go hand-in-hand,” Malissa says. “Sadly, it took the bringing of lawsuits to cause social acceptance. For example, when we think back to integration of schools in the 1950s and ‘60s, even though it was already the law that schools will be integrated, it took brave people bringing lawsuits to force that integration to take place. Once integration did take place, gradually there was a social acceptance of that. I think there are a lot of brave people in South Carolina.”
Malissa Burnette is one of them.
She is also one of many shining examples of how our alumni represent themselves and this university through their own actions. My Carolina Alumni Association exists to connect alumni to their alma mater and to each other for the purpose of fostering growth and support of the university through the donation of time, money or resources. My Carolina is committed to creating a culture of giving, service and sharing while allowing individuals to find their role as an alumnus of the university.
Born in the small town of Morven, North Carolina, just across the border from Cheraw, South Carolina, she lived there until she was 10 years old. A very poor county, Malissa recalls having classes with only 10 other students, some of whom never had shoes. Following eight years in Bowling Green, Ohio, she later moved to Columbia in 1968 after her father, Dr. Harvey Burnette, accepted a position as the head of the University of South Carolina’s student health services. She attended Winthrop for one year, and then transferred to Carolina, earning her degree in Sociology in 1971, and later a law degree in 1977. Her life before and during her years on campus would help mold her future.
Challenging the Times
While living in Ohio as a teenager in the late 1960s, Malissa would spend summers with her grandparents back in North Carolina. She was 18 in July of 1968 when a single event helped shape the path for the rest of her life in seeking justice for others facing discrimination. She worked at a truck stop as a waitress that summer. There was a window where black customers could order food, but they could not come inside and sit down to eat at the counter.
“One day, a black gentleman who drove truck came inside and sat at the counter,” Malissa says. “I just went up and waited on him and served him. Of course, there was this great hush in the room. He looked frightened, and I just treated him like everybody else. I just served him like normal. The owner of the restaurant came over and took the real plate and turned it upside down, dumping all the food on a paper plate and shoved it back at him. But he did let him eat there. I knew that no black people ever came in, but I always grew up treating everyone equally. Although our schools were segregated, I just never felt in my heart that other people were less.”
Soon after, news of what she had done spread quickly through town. Overnight, rally posters for the Ku Klux Klan went up on all of the trees and utility poles all over town.
“People were calling me all kinds of names,” Malissa says, "and the owner of the truck stop was getting heat that I was working there.”
Malissa didn’t think it was very courageous for the KKK to put the posters up anonymously at night, so she called the local police chief and discovered that it was illegal to post signs on utility poles and on trees in resident’s yards without permission. She proceeded to walk around town that next morning and pulled the posters off of the utility poles and asked residents if they wanted the posters in their yards. Most said no, so she took those down too.
“I had a whole stack of them and pretty soon these pick-up trucks were following me,” Malissa says. “These guys who I had gone to elementary school with were threatening me. It was scary. I got to work the next day and these pick-up trucks were there, and the guys wanted me to come out, and the owner, Frank Huntley, ran them off. So he took his life in his hands to stick up for me. I was probably not as terrified as I should have been. That’s sort of the invincibility of youth. I’d be more terrified now.”
She saved some of the posters. In fact, she has one on the desk in her office.
“Those experiences have always made me feel that somebody has to stand up, and I’ve always been that way,” Malissa says. “I represent individuals as an employment lawyer. That’s very hard to do in South Carolina. The laws are very much in favor of the employer. So I considered this as something that I just need to do.”
It wouldn’t be the last time she would take a stand against discrimination and unfair practices.
Inspiration from Behind Bars
After earning her sociology degree in 1971, Malissa went into the workforce for the next three years, with much of that time spent working as a prison guard at what was then the state women’s prison located near Irmo. The middle-class girl, who had lived an admittedly sheltered life, had many eye-opening experiences. Since it was the only women’s prison, there were murderers housed with shoplifters.
“At that time, many women in prison were poor and had very little education,” Malissa says. “I saw that many of the women who were imprisoned were victims of domestic abuse and the training that was provided to the women in prison—and this really motivated me—did not teach them any skills to get along later in life or to support their family. This incensed me.”
The women in prison back then were taught how to cook and to sew, whereas some of the men who were in prison were able to take college classes at Carolina, or they were taught meaningful trade skills such as welding and carpentry.
“I was very motivated and became very involved in the women’s movement,” Malissa says. “While I was there, I was made a teacher and later the principal in the school for the women prisoners. I was very unqualified. While I was there, I decided to go to law school.”
Her involvement with the women’s movement may have started there before she entered law school, but she is still involved today.
“Before law school, I became involved in the National Organization for Women,” Malissa says. “I was the president of the Columbia chapter. I became very involved with the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment. We had a lot of rallies at the State House.”
Law of the Land
After graduating from law school in 1977, Malissa became chief of staff for former Lieutenant Governor Nancy Stevenson, who was the first woman in South Carolina to hold a statewide office. Being in that position created some challenges and a lot of resistance from within the dome right away.
“It was rough, and it was very interesting,” Malissa says. “There were senators who would start rumors about her, that surely she and all her staff must be lesbians and so forth.”
In 1982, which was a do-or-die year for the Equal Rights Amendment, she helped organize one of the last Senate hearings in the nation for the cause.
“We had to have three more states to ratify it or else it was gone,” Malissa says. “South Carolina was one of the 10 states that would not ratify, and so it was over. So that was the end of the fight right there. It lost steam after that. The Equal Rights Amendment was first introduced as an amendment to the constitution in 1920, right after passage of the amendment that gave women the right to vote. It was reintroduced to Congress every year since 1920. The amendment failed, as there were never enough states to ratify it.”
Laws have since been passed to bring gender equality under limited circumstances, but not having the ERA passed is still troublesome for Malissa, as she explains there are still repercussions from that failure to pass today.
“The Equal Rights Amendment, of course, would affect men and women all over the nation, but people say, ‘So what?’” Malissa says. “But it does make a difference. For example, I practice employment law and I have women and men come to me all the time. The primary law governing sexual harassment, for example, also covers discrimination on the basis of sex, religion and several other categories. But you have to have 15 employees to have coverage under that law.”
Therefore, an employee at a small business of fewer than 15 workers who claims to have been sexually harassed or discriminated against by being denied a promotion based on gender, may not have any recourse under the law.
“If we had the Equal Rights Amendment, which applies to men and women, it would cover those situations, as well as many others,” Malissa says.
Malissa serves on the boards of South Carolina Equality and the South Carolina Victims Assistance Network. As she continues to fight in the arena of social justice, she notes how things have changed a great deal and recognizes there are now many more opportunities for minorities and for women.
“I believe that education is a key to the opportunities, and that’s where South Carolina lags tremendously,” Malissa says. “There is a lot more work to be done, of course. I do see as things are changing now, we need to be more accepting of the Hispanic community in our state. I’m also very involved now with the rights of gays and lesbians in South Carolina. That’s a real civil-rights issue and moral issue to me, as well. I don’t think it’s fair to judge or to deny rights to people because of who you love or who you are, or how you were born. I think it’s a real important issue to this nation.”
Malissa has received numerous awards for her work and has been recognized by her peers for excellence in the field of employment law and alternative-dispute resolution. She was named in The Best Lawyers in America from 2005 to 2013. In the 2012 edition, she was named Columbia's Lawyer of the Year in the practice area of Employment Law-Individuals. She also headed up former South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges’ domestic-violence task force.
“I’m very humbled that my peers would recognize me,” Malissa says. “There’s nothing more important than your good name and having people trust you and respect you. Lawyers get a bad rap, unfairly so. I have tremendous respect for lawyers I oppose. People are just doing their jobs.”
Being a lawyer isn’t like what most of us see on television. While there is a lot of pressure in her job, the positive outcomes make it all worth it. That includes another classic case for the state of South Carolina involving the admittance of women to The Citadel in Charleston.
“The best part is seeing change and seeing when change is accepted,” Malissa says. “One of the most fun things I did was get involved with the Citadel case in 1995. After Shannon Faulkner had to drop out, Nancy Mellette’s family asked me to help Nancy become the plaintiff in the case. It was very interesting to see that case go all the way through, and see the doors of The Citadel, which is a state institution, open and allow women to attend. That’s the fun part, because now it’s years later, and seeing women in a military academy as socially accepted is rewarding.”
With her office just a few blocks away from the Columbia campus, Malissa has good memories of her days as a student.
“Being at Carolina was fun,” Malissa says. “I remember walking around the campus in the late '60s and early '70s, and it was exciting. There was a great deal of social upheaval and change.”
The perfect environment.
“I just want to inspire young people to get involved in social issues. Our state really needs people who are dedicated to making sure that everyone has an opportunity. Those of us that have had the advantage of a good education and who are in some position of authority and power have the responsibility to help other people.”
Malissa and her husband, Mike LeFever, have one daughter, Grant, who is a senior at Presbyterian College.