When Malissa Burnette saw injustice in 1968, she stood up for what was right — and has been doing so ever since

I am always delighted to share a No Limits story about our exceptional alumni. From coast to coast, USC graduates are touching lives, shaping policy and providing leadership. Their transformational experiences continue to provide inspiration to Carolinian readers. This brings me to Malissa Burnette’s powerful story.   

In the summer of 1968, Malissa was waitressing at a truck stop in North Carolina. Here, social justice became magnified when an African-American truck driver sat down at the counter and ordered a meal. Malissa, 18 and wise beyond her years, knew blacks were not allowed inside the café. As a hushed room of diners stared in disbelief, she calmly took this courageous man’s order and served him his food. This marked the beginning of a lifelong career dedicated to social and workplace justice. 

Malissa went on to earn a sociology degree from USC in 1971 and became a guard in a women’s prison. She recalls, “I saw that many of the women were victims of domestic abuse. I was incensed that the training they received in prison did not teach any significant life skills to help them support their families.” Ultimately, Malissa became convinced that to facilitate social change she needed a law degree. In 1977, she graduated from USC’s School of Law.

Malissa’s courageous advocacy is a strong model for USC’s “Stand-Up Carolina” program, which is designed to empower students to “step in and speak up” when they see discriminatory, destructive or illegal behavior. Certainly, Malissa’s tireless work on behalf of women and minorities is an excellent example of the power of positive intervention.  

Today, Malissa is a lawyer at the Callison Tighe firm and volunteers with organizations that promote equality and oppose violence. She notes, “I want to inspire young people to get involved in social issues. Our state needs people who are dedicated to making sure that everyone has an opportunity. Those of us who have had the advantage of a good education have to help other people.” I agree.

Malissa is living proof that there are no limits to the positive impact one life can have on many others.