Vanzetta Penn McPherson devoted a 30-year career as a civil rights lawyer and a federal magistrate judge to the passionate pursuit of equal justice for all. Retirement ushered in her avocation, now spanning a decade, as a widely acclaimed columnist for The Montgomery Advertiser, writing bi-weekly commentary on public affairs with the same intellectual vigor, mastery of language, and analytical prowess that marked her legal career.
Judge McPherson was born in Montgomery on May 26, 1947, the second child of educators Luther L. Penn and Sadie Gardner Penn. She attended the Laboratory School of Alabama State College in Montgomery from nursery through high school, graduating in 1965 as valedictorian. In 1969, she graduated with honors from Howard University in Washington DC, and later attended Columbia University in New York City, from which she secured a Master’s Degree in speech pathology in 1971 and a law degree in 1974.
Throughout her matriculating years, from elementary school through law school, Vanzetta McPherson embraced the four cornerstones of the National Honor Society, into which she was inducted at 16: Scholarship, Leadership, Character, and Service. Her parents, both English majors in college, insisted that their children become skilled in oral and written communication, embrace a mind-set for excellence in all pursuits, and adopt an activist stance against discrimination in any form.
After spending a year at a Wall Street law firm, Judge McPherson returned to Montgomery in 1975 to become an Assistant Attorney General. For two years, she represented the State of Alabama in child support enforcement and criminal appeals. Her appearances before the Alabama Supreme Court attracted both law clerks and lawyers interested in learning the craft of oral argument.
During the course of 16 years in solo law practice, Attorney McPherson honed her expertise in domestic relations law, but she spent the majority of her time in federal court, helping clients to secure rights and remedies guaranteed by the Constitution and federal anti-discrimination laws. As a respected civil rights lawyer, she battled employment discrimination in public and private workplaces. Her most consequential lawsuit, filed in 1987 against Montgomery County, targeted a white Sheriff, in office since 1954, who had promoted only one African American deputy and advanced all other African Americans only to court bailiff or jail duty, while maintaining an openly hostile, racially-abusive environment. Court-ordered remedies extended beyond individual claims to establish non-discriminatory policies and practices which transformed the Sheriff’s Department. Within a decade, black deputies led several divisions, and the current elected sheriff is African American.
McPherson coupled her successful practice with service and leadership in bar associations: she is a former president of the Alabama Black Lawyers Association and the Federal Bar Association’s Montgomery Chapter, and she is a former chair of the Family Law Section of the Alabama State Bar.
In 1992, McPherson earned her own promotion with a merit-based appointment as a U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Middle District of Alabama. She served with distinction for 14 years, presiding over criminal and civil cases, including a nationally publicized challenge to the continued use of outdoor hitching posts as punishment for Alabama prisoners.
Judge McPherson has also led an active civic life, participating in the inaugural class of Leadership Montgomery, the 20th class of Leadership Alabama, and the boards of directors for the Alabama State Council on the Arts, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Alabama Educational Television Foundation Authority, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Alabama World Affairs Council. She has received numerous professional and civic awards, and she is a life member of the NAACP and the National Council of Negro Women.
In all of her endeavors, Judge McPherson has been lovingly supported by her devoted husband, Thomas McPherson, Jr., a retired district director of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Judge McPherson has one son, Dr. Raegan W. Durant.