Clemson University professor Vernon Burton and Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor go way back.
In the early 1970s, Burton said, he hired Sotomayor as research assistant to help him with data entry while he was a graduate student at Princeton University. Though they came from vastly different backgrounds – he was from Ninety Six, and she was from the Bronx – they found unity in their similar upbringings.
“I suspect I am the only historian who had a Supreme Court justice as a research assistant,” Burton said. “And I was able, as a graduate student, to encourage her to not let it be overwhelming and to not let people put you down because of where you’re from.”
Still friends decades later, Burton – who is both a history professor and the director of the Clemson’s Cyberinstitute – said he has followed Sotomayor’s career all the way from her time at Princeton to ascent to the Supreme Court.
She wrote about their friendship in her memoir, “My Beloved World,” and has spoken about his mentorship while delivering speeches, Burton said. Because it had become public knowledge they were pals, the dean of Clemson’s College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities approached him earlier this year with a hefty request.
Sotomayor accepted Clemson’s offer to speak, though she requested Burton moderate the question-and-answer session at the Brooks Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets for the Thursday event ran out shortly after her visit was announced in August, said Robin Denny, Clemson’s director of media relations.
“Her story is one that’s so meaningful in America – of an immigrant family and hard work and sacrifice, belief in the American dream and the desire to make America a better place,” Burton said.