Robert Belton ('65) honored as professor emeritus, Vanderbilt University, at portrait unveiling


Robert Belton ('65)
Robert Belton ('65)

Robert Belton ('65), professor emeritus at Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville, Tenn., was honored at a portrait unveiling ceremony on October 22.

Source: Vanderbilt University Law School

Robert Belton joined Vanderbilt Law School’s faculty in 1975.  A trailblazer in civil rights as an activist, attorney and scholar, throughout his career, Professor Belton is the first African American law professor to earn tenure at the law school. More than 27 years would pass before another African American would earn tenure at the law school although several others who had earned tenure at other law schools joined the law faculty, with tenure, during this period. He retired in 2009 after 34 years at Vanderbilt. 

Professor Belton earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Connecticut and his J.D. at Boston University. Before joining Vanderbilt’s law faculty, he was an assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), where he headed a national civil rights litigation campaign to enforce a new federal law that prohibits discrimination in employment because of, for example, race and sex. The LDF, America’s premier legal organization fighting for racial justice, litigated Brown v. Board of Education and other landmark cases. Professor Belton had a major role in the landmark Supreme Court civil rights case, Griggs v. Duke Power Co., which some have argued has had a greater influence on civil rights enforcement and policy than Brown. Other landmark Supreme Court civil rights cases in which he was involved include Albemarle Paper Co. v. Moody (damages in civil rights cases) and Harris v. Forklift Systems (sexual harassment). He left the LDF to become a partner in one of the first racially integrated firms in the South. The building owned by the North Carolina law firm where he was a partner was fire-bombed at the height of the firm’s involvement in a series of landmark civil rights cases, including Swann v. Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court approved busing as a remedy to enforce the Brown decision.

A nationally recognized scholar of civil rights, Professor Belton is an expert in employment discrimination law.  He was a popular and beloved teacher and mentor, the author of numerous law review articles and book chapters, and the lead author of a widely-adopted casebook on employment discrimination law that was the first to incorporate critical race and feminist theory. He taught the Law of Work (individual employee rights), Employment Discrimination Law, Constitutional Tort Litigation, and Race and the Law.  He particularly enjoyed working with students interested in social justice. He played an important role in mentoring minority law students, serving as the faculty advisor to the Black Law Students Association and working with other African American faculty throughout the Vanderbilt community on equality issues. 

Over the course of his career, Professor Belton was a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and the University of North Carolina, and the first Distinguished Charles Hamilton Houston Visiting Professor of Law at North Carolina Central School of Law.

At Vanderbilt, he served on a number of law school and university committees, including the Faculty Senate, the Committee on the Status of Women and Minorities, the University Research Council, and the Black Cultural Center, and on many professional committees, including the Executive Committee of the American Association of Law Schools and the National Employment Lawyers Association. He is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., the Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity (the Boule), and the 100 Black Men of Middle Tennessee.

Professor Belton and his wife, Joy, are the parents of two children, Keith and Alaina, and the grandparents of two grandchildren, Savannah and Kelsey.