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Where Are All The Lawyers?: An Urgent Call to Action to Lawyers Across the Nation

December 14, 2016

Kristen Clarke

President and Executive Director

Where Are All The Lawyers?: An Urgent Call to Action to Lawyers Across the Nation

Courts have always proven an important place to safeguard the rights of minority communities. This simple truth will be made plain in 2017 as lawyers rise up to challenge and contest efforts to roll back fragile civil rights gains or undermine the rule of law.

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal” was inherently unequal. This unanimous decision, authored by Chief Justice Earl Warren, appeared to usher in a new era, rending de jure discrimination null and void.

However, white segregationists refused to abide by the Supreme Court’s opinion, and resisted the Court’s mandate at every turn. Hate-inspired violence directed towards African Americans ensued. The resources of the federal government were simply not enough to match the hostility, recalcitrance and defiance among extremists bent on resisting racial integration of any form. Private lawyers watched the injustice from a distance.

When John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Robert F. Kennedy issued a telegram summonsing 244 private attorneys to the White House on June 21, 1963, they did so recognizing the power of attorneys to help ensure equal justice under the law. Kennedy laid bare the crisis unfolding across the country and made clear that private attorneys had the power, capacity and resources to return to their communities and fight to protect the victims of discrimination. Kennedy’s request to those in attendance gave rise to a new organization — the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee) which was formed with the singular goal of galvanizing the private bar around the fight for racial justice.

Lawyers who attended the meeting heeded the call. Former Presidents of the American Bar Association, former Attorneys General of the United States, local bar leaders and other leading attorneys were among the first members of the Lawyers’ Committee to activate. In the organization’s first days, they issued statements calling for compliance with court orders and filed cases seeking to promote desegregation at every turn. They fought to protect the rights of peaceful demonstrators and protesters.

Following Kennedy’s assassination at the end of 1963, the Lawyers’ Committee opened an office in Mississippi to protect the rights of African American protestors seeking to peacefully assemble and protest in the state. The work of those volunteer lawyers who went to Mississippi expanded as Mississippi was a central place in the civil rights movement — members of clergy, college students and organizations all converged in Mississippi to peacefully march for voting rights and to protest segregation.

Throughout the years, the Lawyers’ Committee has supported the adoption of core federal civil rights laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

The Lawyers’ Committee opposed discriminatory redistricting plans that would have diluted the voting strength of African American voters. In Mississippi, our early successes spurred the election of fifteen African Americans to the Mississippi State House and two African Americans to the State Senate.

The Lawyers’ Committee mobilized lawyers across the country to help desegregate public schools.

We vocalized our opposition to several of President Reagan’s political appointments, namely Edwin Meese as attorney general, who endangered fragile gains in the area of civil rights.

We joined forces with other organizations in the South to help congregations with insurance, zoning, and rebuilding issues after a string of arson attacks decimated African-American churches in the North and the South.

The annals of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law reflect a simple truth: we’ve been there, on the ground and in the courtroom, safeguarding the inalienable rights of those victimized by an unjust system. We’ve held firm to the sacred idea that the scales of justice shouldn’t weigh in favor of one racial community over another.

Decades later, we stand at a crossroads again. We are at a moment characterized by extremism, hate-inspired violence, and bitter resistance to the goals underlying civil rights laws. Voter suppression is alive and well. The President-elect has put forth nominees for key agencies who bring great hostility towards the goals and mission underlying these agencies, including the US Department of Justice, US Department of Education, HUD and the Department of Labor. To meet the challenges we now face, a new army of private lawyers will be needed to help support the fight that lies ahead.

Lawyers must rise up now and collaborate with civil rights organizations dedicated to to fight hostile actions taken at the federal level. Lawyers are needed to stand with the Lawyers’ Committee in our ongoing and extensive work to fight against voter suppression, extremism, hate-inspired incidents and our broken criminal justice system. This is work that we must expand now to safeguard our democracy.

Watching racially-charged atrocities unfold around the United States, President Kennedy asked, “Where are all the lawyers?”

Throughout the years, thousands of lawyers, donors and grassroots activists across the country heeded Kennedy’s call. They did so because lawyers are the legal barrier against discrimination, the ballast standing firm against the flowing tides of injustice. And now more than ever, we encourage lawyers to heed the call and pledge their support to fight injustice and to challenge efforts that threaten to turn the clock back.

Simply put, the work of attorneys committed to equal justice under law matters now more than ever.

Kristen Clarke is president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. To volunteer or support the Lawyers’ Committee, contact us today.

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