W. Haywood Burns

(1940 - 1996)

Our organization is named for the late W. Haywood Burns, who was a beacon of light to those who believe the battle for human rights and justice can be won through activism, humility and dedication.

After graduating with honors from Harvard College and receiving a law degree from Yale University, Burns served as the first law clerk for District Court Judge Constance Baker Motley. In 1968, he served as general counsel to Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign. He was one of the founders of the National Conference of Black Lawyers. He worked on the defense of the Attica prisoners and many other people struggling for self-determination. Burns was also the founding dean of the City College Urban Legal Studies Program, serving from 1977-1987.

Burns went on to serve as dean of the Law School at the City University of New York (CUNY). He was a visiting scholar at Yale Law School and returned to New York to establish a Harlem-based law firm. Talent, passion and zest for life were his signatures. He was tragically killed in an automobile accident while attending the International Association of Democratic Lawyers conference in Cape Town, South Africa.

Burns’ family endorses the use of his name for the work of the BI, which was created in 2001 by James Bell. There is no more fitting a person in whose memory the BI works on behalf of youth of color, their families and communities.



James Bell

Founder and President

“I founded the W. Haywood Burns Institute to represent the values and embody the spirit of our namesake. When I conceived the BI’s mission, values and place regarding activism and advocacy regarding race, ethnicity, ancestry and justice, Haywood’s legacy was our beacon. He personified the clarity of vision and commitment to challenging the jurisprudential structures of oppression and provided a North Star for our organization. His personal and political qualities combined to create the cultural and organizational basis for our team. We work hard and enjoy ourselves as well during this journey. We are unapologetic in our beliefs that oppression while pervasive, is on the wrong side of history. It is our obligation to name “othering” and provide solutions to eliminate it. That was who he was and this is who we are.”