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Lawyers’ Committee Formed at Height of Civil Rights Movement

February 19, 2010

As we celebrate Black History month, and honor the courage and achievements of so many that endured so much in the ongoing struggle for freedom and racial justice in America, it is appropriate to reflect on the founding of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Forty-seven years ago President John F. Kennedy met with 244 leading American lawyers in the East Room of the White House to consider what role lawyers could and should play in the civil rights crisis.

And it was a crisis.  People all across the nation were shaken by the media coverage of the protracted confrontation in Birmingham, Alabama, where peaceful protesters, led by Rev.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were repeatedly attacked by police using batons, hoses and even dogs.  Shocking too was the spectacle of Governor George Wallace defiantly resisting a federal court order to admit black students to the University of Alabama, and the decision by the president and the attorney general to deploy the U.S. Army to enforce the order and the law.  And certainly the tragic assassination of Medgar Evers on June 12, 1963, just hours following President Kennedy’s nationally televised civil rights speech, distraught many.

Yet, the private bar was amazingly silent until Bernard Segal, chairman of the firm now known as Schnader, Harrison, Segal & Lewis and  co-founding chair of the Lawyers’ Committee, placed an ad in the Birmingham paper signed by other lawyers, decrying the defiance of the law by elected officials and calling instead for strong adherence to the rule of law.  This ad grabbed the attention of the attorney general and led him to persuade President Kennedy to issue a “Call to the Bar” for the now famous meeting on June 21, 1963.

During the meeting, President John F. Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy pointed to recent events in Birmingham and elsewhere as symptoms of a deepening crisis.  They recognized that because our constitutional system and the rule of law depends on peaceful obedience to court orders, official resistance requiring enforcement by armed force could lead to anarchy.  It was clear, they emphasized, that justifiable demands by blacks for equal access to public facilities, job opportunities, voting rights and other fundamental citizenship rights could no longer be denied.  Citing the unique role of lawyers within our constitutional system and the rule of law, the president, vice president and attorney general appealed to the assembled attorneys to mobilize the legal profession to support black Americans in their struggle for justice.

As a result of the meeting, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law was formed with the specific task of marshaling the resources of the private bar in the fight for racial equality.  Its members included former attorneys general, former presidents of the American Bar Association and local bar leaders from around the country.  No longer would the legal profession hold itself apart from the civil rights struggle.  Immediately the Committee began to issue public statements calling for peaceful compliance with court orders and voluntary desegregation of public facilities.  In addition, the Committee sent volunteer lawyers to Mississippi to represent ministers who had engaged in nonviolent civil rights demonstrations and had been charged with crimes.  In June of 1965 the Committee opened an office in Jackson, Mississippi which in its two decades of fearless advocacy contributed to the desegregation and transformation of that state including the election of its first African American congressman.

Now, nearly a half century later since our founding, after thousands of cases and public policy advocacy advancing racial equality for millions of clients, we continue to work with our network of legal volunteers to fight for racial equality and justice in the areas of employment, housing and lending, education, voting, environmental justice and community development.  The modern context of this fight is more nuanced, more multicultural in perspective, but is still powerfully urgent as racial exclusion results in the denial for way too many to participate equally in the fulfillment of the American dream.

With great pride and gratitude we can look back across the history of the Lawyers’ Committee and recognize the impact of so many who have answered the call.  And it is with a sense of undiminished resolve and purpose that we work with our volunteers to continue to engage the legal profession in the struggle for racial justice and equal opportunity.

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