The National Lawyers Guild and The ‘Civil Rights Revolution’ of the 1960s
By Dave Riddle
Edited by Tom Stephens
“You ask what the point is. I think that the point is that this is much like Germany at the beginning of Hitler’s rise — fear, police intimidation and summary arrests. I don’t want you or any other kids to grow up in America in those circumstances.”
-A Presbyterian Minister in a letter to his sons about Hattiesburg, Mississippi,
“I blame the people in Washington, DC, and on down. …We’ve got to stand up. The best way we can remember James Chaney is to demand our rights. …If you go back home and sit down and take what these men in Mississippi are doing to us. …Then God damn your souls!”
-David Dennis on the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE)
Eulogy Meridian, Mississippi
Forty years ago, a crucial stage in the “civil rights revolution” of the 20th century came to a bloody climax in the old south. At that time, the Detroit Chapter was historically one of the most active local affiliates of the National Lawyers Guild. The NLG is a left bar association founded in 1937.
At its inception, the Guild defined itself as a racially integrated association of radical and liberal lawyers seeking to, as stated in the preamble to its constitution, “unite the lawyers of America in a professional organization which shall function as an effective social force in the service of the people to the end that human rights shall be regarded as more sacred than property rights.” NLG gave legal support to struggles to defend President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and to organize unions in American heavy industries, and later to the southern civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Today’s Detroit NLG and National Conference of Black Lawyers (NCBL) proudly look back on the role played by progressive legal professionals with crucial leadership provided by the NLG Detroit Chapter — who went south before, during and after the dangerous days of “Mississippi Freedom Summer,” to assist the heroic people’s freedom movement against Jim Crow racial segregation.
LAW AND POLITICS FOR THE PEOPLE
The history of the NLG has always been virtually inseparable from that of the broader progressive movements fighting for justice and human rights in the USA and the world. From the depths of the Great Depression in the 1930s, through World War II and the onset of the Cold War in the 1940s, and continuing today, the Guild’s role has been to defend, advise, educate, advocate, and publicize the great popular movements of the times, in their inevitable encounters with the legal system.
Out of diverse elements a mixture of idealism, practically and ideology Detroit socialist Maurice Sugar played the leading role in spurring the organization of the Guild. On his return for a fact-finding trip to the Soviet Union and subsequent 33-city speaking tour from New York to Seattle in 1933 (sponsored by the Friends of the Soviet Union), Sugar began to agitate for the establishment of a liberal professional organization for lawyers. Initially Sugar’s call had little effect. New York City labor and civil liberties attorneys held back from complete and prompt endorsement of Sugar’s initiative. This may have been in part the origin of tension that later developed between the New York and Detroit chapters of the Guild. Eventually, however, the consensus for forming the guild prevailed.
In February 1937, 425 lawyers, two federal judges, plus a sprinkling of state supreme court justices gathered in Washington, D.C., at the founding convention of the new organization. By the end of the year, membership stood at 3,300. By 1939, with the economy still mired in the Roosevelt Recession, the Guild boasted 5,000 members. Twenty-five years later, in 1964, the NLG Convention would vote to make the southern civil rights project the organization’s primary focus, and the national office was moved to Detroit.
Under the leadership of Detroit’s Ernie Goodman, George Crockett, John Conyers and others, NLG opened a law office in Jackson, Miss. that coordinated the work of 153 volunteer lawyers who each went there for a week to document interference with African American voting rights. Some in the NLG thought this project “too political” for a bar association. There are probably many reasons for such reservation, but the experiences of NLG and NCBL ever since leave little room for doubt that developing powerful legal/political strategies “How to represent clients arrested for breaking unjust laws” — is one of the most critical tools in the arsenal of people’s lawyers.
There is definitely a price to pay for standing on principle, refusing to be seduced by respectability and oppression clothed in appeals to professional ideology. In the 1960s, a genuine, historic mass freedom movement arose in the old south. The Detroit NLG leadership determined to do something about it, by sending lawyers into the affected communities to stand with the people against violence and injustice, and the membership followed. It was “unprofessional,” then the profession (not the NLG or the “communists”) must answer to history for that corrupted judgment.
THE RED SCARE (1947-1960)
The Lawyers Guild had prospered in its early years during the New Deal. Gradually, however, as World War II ended, the Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union deepened and the ideological tide began to turn. The Guild stagnated both in its ability to respond to challenges posed by resurgent conservatism. The most telling problem for the Guild was the fact that in its earliest days, it had defined itself as a leftwing partisan of New Deal reformism. This was true both on the deepest level of conceptualizing the law, the government, and the social good as well as on the level of evaluating policy. For instance, although most members of the Guild supported President Roosevelt’s threat to reorganize (or ‘pack’) the recalcitrant and conservative Supreme Court in early 1937, many Americans did not. Thus began the isolation of the Guild, which became all the more acute in the Cold War context of red scare high-handed security measures focused on “internal” enemies.
On March 21, 1947, President Truman issued Executive Order 9835 inaugurating a “loyalty program” in the executive branch of government. Under the provisions of this bill, all members of the executive branch were required to deny under oath that they had ever belonged to any of the leftwing organizations deemed to be “subversive.” A little over a year later, in May 1948 the Mundt-Nixon bill began to make its way through Congress. Though the Lawyers Guild did all in its power to derail the bill, it passed in 1950 as the Subversive Activities Control Act, or the McCarran Internal Security Act.
This law extended the provisions of the loyalty oath program to all branches of government and all groups or members of groups who were attempting implement or influence government policy. The bill directed the Attorney General to issue two lists, “Communist Political” and “Communist Front.” Although the bill did not spell out any change in the civil liberties status of any listed group, the implication of infringement of the rights was clear, in light of the internment during World War II of Americans of Japanese ancestry. Typically, the government inquisitors of the red scare defined any organization favoring racial integration as a likely communist front. Justice Hugo Black noted the chilling effect on civil rights of the legislative process in his opinion in Braden v. U.S.:
If the house Un-American Activities Committee is to have the power to interrogate everyone who is called a Communist, there is one thing beyond the peradventure of a doubt no legislative committee, state or federal, will have trouble having cause to subpoena all persons anywhere to take public stand for or against segregation.
As the casualties rose in the Korean war, Congress was moving steadily to the right and the Guild became a target of opportunity for congressional conservatives. It was at their behest that HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) had already announced its intention to hold hearings on communism inside the legal system targeting the lawyers Guild. The FBI assisted HUAC in gathering information on witnesses.
According to HUAC, “The National Lawyers Guild is the foremost legal bulwark of the Communist Party, its front organizations and controlled unions.” Rather than attempting to ban the Lawyers Guild outright, the main thrust of the HUAC offensive against the Guild was to pressure the ABA to expel any of its members who happened also to be members of the lawyers Guild. These hearings could be quite intimidating, even for dedicated activists. Their inquisitorial nature is evident from the fact that even a seasoned courtroom lawyer like Ernie Goodman experienced a temporary onset of paralysis and inability to speak during his defense of Smith Act trial members of the Michigan Communist Party in 1953. Often devastating to the careers of individuals called before the Committee, the main effect of the hearings was to attack and isolate the victim and to impugn what until then had been the good reputation of the Guild.
This, of course, had an immediate impact on the size and resources of the Guild. Of the seven largest chapters, only one (New York) met its dues pledge for the year 1959. Detroit only raised about two-thirds of its 1959 pledge of $3,000. One year later, the Guild had only four functioning chapters: New York City, Detroit, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Although Detroit was one of them, it was hanging on by a thread.
One underlying problem was the “window of opportunity” for radical lawyers had slammed shut. There was less work. Most of the work that labor lawyers had done during the expansionist phase of the CIO fighting temporary restraining orders over mass picketing, negotiating first contracts, writing constitutions for international unions or for local unions, etc. was over with by the early 1960s. Then too, the nature of labor relations under the Taft-Hartley Act was far different than under the Wagner Act. This was reflected in Walter Reuther’s own compromise with anti-communism in firing Maurice Sugar as chief counsel for the UAW. If it were not for diversification into fields other than labor law workers compensation, negligence, product liability the Detroit Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild would probably have folded.
Worn down by FBI harassment and by the loss of jobs during the Red Scare, the National Lawyers Guild entered the 1960s in profound crisis. As Ernie Goodman recalled, “All the people who had to fight their way through the McCarthy period in the previous 10 years were tired out. They wanted some peace and quiet.”
Although politics seemed to thaw somewhat in the late 1950s, HUAC had driven home the national anti-communist consensus. The drag of anti-communism could be broken, perhaps, only by a new offensive. Ann Fagin Ginger, the new administrative secretary to the Guild, suggested that since resources were limited, the Guild should concentrate on programs likely to have the most effect. Supremely confident and indefatigable in debate, Ginger argued for this “concentration policy” until it was adopted. How the Guild came to concentrate its efforts on civil rights in the south is another story.
Communist and “front” groups and individuals often played active and honorable roles in all the labor, international law, and civil rights struggles of the 1930s through the 1960s. The term “communist” itself, much like “terrorist” today, took on different meanings and emphases over time and among different groups. The FBI and the U.S. Justice Department would systematically apply it to Dr. King and the freedom movement he symbolized. This movement eventually succeeded in outlawing Jim Crow racial discrimination.
The movement even helped change the way many Americans think about the issue of race, to a historically significant extent. But the power of official anti-communism, as justification for increasing government and corporate power, nearly killed the NLG (and a lot of other progressive organizations) during the Red Scare of the 1950s. Involvement with the southern Civil Rights Movement was the next stage of the center of gravity for NLG work.
THE GUILD GOES SOUTH
The way Ernie Goodman told the story, it was simply the growing notoriety of the denial of basic rights of Black people in the south that, as they became more visible, eventually overcame the ignorance and indifference of Guild members. Like many northern whites, most Guild members had been simply oblivious to the situation in the south. Change was coming, however, The 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education was proof of that.
In 1955, fourteen-year-old Emmet Till from Chicago, while visiting relatives in Mississippi, whistled at a white woman in a store. That night he was abducted from his relatives’ house, tortured, and murdered. The Sheriff produced two likely suspects but an all-white jury acquitted the accused. This outrageous miscarriage of justice, perhaps because it involved a person from Chicago, somehow penetrated the awareness of white liberals from the north even though the victim was Black.
Meanwhile, the immediate political fall-out of Brown, paradoxically, was the mobilization of reaction through the saber rattling of the Southern Manifesto, and the posturing of racist demagogues like Ross Barnett and Lester Maddox. Rosa Parks’ historic refusal was followed by the mass resistance of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956, led by the young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The student sit-in movement that began in Greensboro, N.C., in February 1960, demonstrated that the civil rights movement would not surrender to the southern white power structure without a nonviolent fight.
The NLG’s understanding of the law with respect to segregation was clear and unambiguous. Early in March 1962, Goodman addressed a mass meeting (attended largely by Blacks) in Hopewell, Va. There, in a passage that illuminates his view of the relationship between the law and the civil rights movement in the United States, he argued that the contradiction between the federal law, based on the Constitution, and state or local laws and ordinances, frequently based on racist practice, would eventually result in the overturn of those local ordinances. Any lawyer will know, what everybody knows white or Negro, northerner or southerner, many states and thousands of counties, cities, and villages are consistently and openly engaged in preventing legal equality. Some even proudly assert their aim is to deny equality to the Negro people by every means at their command.
Now consider this: If the situation were reversed, if the law of the land denied equality and compelled segregation, and the Negro people then sought to obtain the equality denied them under the law, these same officials could, and would, lawfully indict all the Negro leaders as members of a gigantic criminal conspiracy, and legally send them to jail. This is exactly what is now happening in South Africa, which I visited last year. There, Apartheid or segregation is now the law of the land. And there the Apartheid government acts cruelly and remorselessly to suppress, prosecute, and imprison Africans who even advocate equality.
There this suppression occurs under the existing law.
But here in the south, suppression occurs contrary to the law. And I ask: How can we justify the existence, within our own country, of a common agreement, denied to millions who are entitled to equality under their own Constitution. Is this not also, a criminal conspiracy?
Such a view was bound to end in a call for action and action would require unity with the Guild. Unfortunately, there was no such agreement with the Lawyers Guild. The New York City chapter feared that Detroit’s single-minded approach would crowd out other programs in which New York was invested. These programs, according to Victor Rabinowitz (a partner in the legendary Boudin, Rabinowitz law firm and a prominent figure in the New York City Guild chapter), included “the repeal of the Smith Act, various items of social legislation publicizing violations of the First and Fourth Amendments, programs concerning racial discrimination in the North, foreign policy with respect to Cuba, and the overwhelming fear of nuclear war …”
The tension between the New York and Detroit chapters built in the fall of 1963. The Detroit delegation began to feel uneasy with what it characterized as the opulence of the preparations for the upcoming Guild conference at the St. Pierre hotel in New York City. New York’s continued resistance angered Guild members in Detroit, who read into it the arrogance of the New York city-slickers. Ernie spoke for the rest of the Detroit delegation:
We also probably reacted with a certain degree of resentment that Guild Midwesterners had held for many years with respect to the New York Chapter’s dominant role. We felt that many very able New York Chapter members looked down on us. And we were not about to accept the view that the New York Chapter and officers had all the answers …”
Emotion drove the debate in the 1964 national convention of the Guild. Len Holt, a Black lawyer from Norfolk, Va., delivered a stirring report on the state of civil rights in the South and the plight of Black lawyers. It must have dumbfounded the Guild members to learn there were only a handful of Black lawyers in the South and most of them did not take civil rights cases. Holt then invited the entire assembly to stand, link arms, and sing an as-yet unfamiliar gospel song, “We Shall Overcome.” That melted resistance. The delegates elected Goodman presiding officer of the Guild. He immediately moved the national headquarters to Detroit and proceeded to implement the outreach to the South.
The question was, what form should that outreach take? The Guild could have confined itself to taking certain public positions, such as lobbying the attorney general for a tough anti-lynch law statute and strict enforcement of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. That, in any case, would be the implied thrust of any action that they might undertake. They could also have sent money. But they had barely enough money to maintain their organizational integrity as it was.
The Committee to Assist Southern Lawyers
The way forward lay through recruiting legal counsel devoted to upholding civil rights in the South on the local level. This led to the formation of a committee of the Lawyers Guild, the Committee to Assist Southern Lawyers (CASL), to bolster legal aid in the South. As part of this initiative, George Crockett went to Jackson, Miss., and opened a storefront Lawyers Guild office to support voter registration.
During World War II, Crockett had served on the national Committee for Fair Employment Practices, a government-sponsored monitoring system to insure that a fair proportion of defense industry jobs went to Black workers. Thus, Crockett was in many ways the ideal candidate or this dangerous assignment. More than once, wearing his white suit and Panama hat, Crockett would have to push his way through a crowd of angry whites to get Blacks registered to vote. As his later career demonstrated, Crockett combined a high degree of moral courage with a scholarly understanding of the Bill of Rights.
Crockett went to Mississippi after being released from prison, where he had served four months for contempt of court. This charge had been levied on him by U.S. Circuit Court Judge Harold R. Medina during the Foley Square Smith Act Trial, in which Crockett had defended members of the Communist Party. A man of considerable personal dignity, Crockett did not take well to the affront of four months behind bars. Crockett and his friend Len Holt began to talk. They both wanted to do something about the situation of Black lawyers in the South. (One estimate was that there were only perhaps half dozen Black lawyers in the state Mississippi, and most did not take civil rights cases.) The determination of the Detroit Guild to confront and build a strong response to the southern segregationist reaction on Black civil rights was largely the result of these discussions in the Goodman, Crockett law firm, as well as among other activists in Detroit.
The rolls of those who joined the 1964 summer project included 67 Guild attorneys. In terms of participation in the summer project, Detroit out-performed most of its fellow Guild chapters. New York, for instance, contributed only eight whereas Detroit, a smaller chapter, sent 15. The number of attorneys who traveled south from the state of Michigan was 23.
Detroit’s response to the crisis in civil rights in the South took two forms. One was to open the filed office in Jackson. The role of the field office was to coordinate observation of the process of voter registration in Mississippi. George Crockett manned this office for one year. Detroiter Claudia Morcom then took over from Crockett. This coordination involved bringing Guild attorneys to witness the voter registration process. Volunteer Guild members (plus a couple of highly motivated non-members) donated one week of their time observing the voter registration process.
The second aspect of the intervention by the Detroit chapter involved encouraging the development of a multi-faceted approach to strengthening the position of Black lawyers in the South. The Goodman, Crockett firm, among others, had learned from its own experience that the political side of work had to be subsidized by diversifying its non-political legal menu.
The main idea here was to create a division of labor inside the law firm and support the political work with the work that was done in other branches of the law such as product liability, negligence and workers compensation. The Detroit Chapter of the NLG organized a conference in Atlanta in order to show Southern Black lawyers how to undertake these other fields of law. The invitation to the conference was set up to “make it possible for more attorneys to accept civil rights cases by making their practices in other areas of the law more lucrative.” The historic Atlanta conference was the first interracial meeting of lawyers ever held in the South. It was attended by 50 or 60 registrants, about half Black and half white. A highlight was the closing dinner, where Dr. King came directly from the Birmingham, Ala., jail to wish the attendees success in the supplying lawyers for the movement.
A second NLG seminar in New Orleans was attended by, among others, Michigan Supreme Court Justices Otis Smith and Wade McCree, which made recruitment of Michigan lawyers for the southern civil rights project much easier. The New Orleans meeting was disrupted by the arrests of conference participants Bruce Wlatzer and Ben Smith, and Jim Dombrowski, three leaders of the NLG and the Southern Conference Educational Fund.
The arrests and the searches of their law office were executed by the Louisiana Red Squad, on the orders of Mississippi Senator James Eastland, of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s “Internal Security” Subcommittee. This direct attack by the full weight of the federal government allied with Southern white power would lead to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ famous Dombrowksi decision, enjoining such prosecutions because of their “chilling effect” on activities protected by the First Amendment.
Part of the reason for setting this example of reaching out to their Southern brethren was in order to shame the American Bar Association into sending its own delegations to the South. In a letter of early August 1964, addressed to Walter E. Craig, the President of the ABA, Goodman employed his considerable letter-writing skills in attempting to move the ABA to action similar to the Guild’s outreach efforts.
In the letter, Goodman recalled the fact that earlier in the summer the NLG had invited the Mississippi Bar Association to participate in the Guild outreach programs. Citing the boilerplate resolution passed by the ABA to the effect the its national leadership expected state associations to fulfill their “professional responsibilities in the ‘present civil rights controversy,’” Goodman was in fact threatening to capture the moral high ground from the ABA if it failed to live up to its stated principles, as weak as they were.
The threat was under-girded by a statement (hard to prove or to disprove) that a good number of the participants in the NLG outreach program were non-members but were simply attracted to the program. The objective was to draw the ABA into a more powerful united front against racism than the NLG was capable of mounting by itself. By all accounts, when the lawyers from various political perspectives and organizational backgrounds arrived in Mississippi to work out of the COFO office, they got along very well.
Lessons from History
“But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your Black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society … then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. … How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? … All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality … I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice, who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action,’ who paternalistically believes that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom …”
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Letter from a Birmingham Jail
The notorious House “Un-American Activities” Committee called the NLG “the foremost legal bulwark of the Communist Party, its front organizations and controlled unions.” The FBI and the Justice Department would later invoke alleged “communist” influence, as a basis for wiretapping Dr. King and bugging his hotel rooms. These federal authorities implemented the clandestine COINTELPRO “counter-intelligence program,” a truly “un-American political secret police operation, based on “the premise that the civil rights movement was a disguised arm of Communist conspiracy,” when they should have been aggressively investigating bombings and other racist atrocities by the Klan. The complex and brutal reality behind such shameless red-baiting was the context of the Southern civil rights struggle.
The lessons of those days should instruct us regarding the major challenges we face today, in the government’s declared indefinite “war on terrorism,” and its associated civil liberties and human rights abuses. In short, things have been this bad, and even worse, before.
The National Lawyers Guild and National Conference of Black Lawyers learned that merging the legal and political experience of the “old” left with the energy, direct action philosophy and movement contracts of the “new” left can create dynamism and power in social struggle. These lessons are directly relevant to the current COINTELPRO II era, inaugurated by the infamous U.S. “Patriot” Act of October 2001. As usual, the late Arthur Kinoy put it best in his summary of the “fundamental lesson” of the Dombrowski vs. Pfister case:
‘In helping to raise the morale of a people’s movement, nothing is more crucial than to fashion forms of action which, if even for a moment, transform those attacked into the accusers, turning the tables and placing the people themselves in the rare position of being the prosecutors. Even the simple act of taking formal affidavits from people who had suffered the violence had a tremendous morale-building effect. For a COFO [Council of Federate Organizations]team to arrive a day after an episode an episode [sic]of violence, explain to the people involved what we were doing to fight back, and then formally record the events for presentation to a federal court had a profound effect upon the entire community. They were no longer just isolated victims of an overwhelming force. They were part of an important, organized movement of people fighting back and demanding the enforcement of national law.”
What our predecessors, many of whom are still among us and whom we honor today with this special commemorative event, did then, as progressive forces in America struggled to shake the nation out of a prolonged period of racist political reaction, is well worth remembering today. As we attempt to support fundamental human rights in the era of today’s social movements for peace and global justice, this anniversary is an opportunity to remember the sacrifices and eventual triumphs of those on whose shoulders we stand.
Perhaps one of the most important lessons is to remember that it is the clients, not the lawyers, whose cases, legal rights, and human and political destinies really matter:
Although the lawyers did bring much needed legal assistance to the civil rights movement, the practicality and the determination exhibited during the civil rights revolution by the protesting Black population, many of them youngsters facing high pressure water hoses and dogs, dwarfed the contribution of the lawyers and instructed those lawyers in the political culture of rapid social change. It was the largely blue-collar quality of that movement to register voters that assured its effectiveness and its maturity. The history of the National Lawyers Guild suggests that the Guild benefited by its association with the Black working class.
Civil Rights and ‘The Sixties’
Forty years provides some perspective on an era of extraordinarily rapid cultural, political, and legal change. Yet many of the key issues: Racism, imperial wars, class conflicts covered up by political leaders and the corporate media — are just as relevant for us today. We are constantly caught up in and misled by current turmoil that echoes “the sixties.” Momentous presidential elections and their underlying political currents confront us. Litigation over human rights focuses on conditions of confinement as well as the rights of the people to organize and exercise our First Amendment rights to Freedom of Speech in the face of police brutality.
Both the Vietnam and Iraq wars are counter-productive applications of overwhelming military force, against peoples long deprived of their fundamental civil, political and economic rights, with the connivance and even the active support of U.S. government leaders, and with profound domestic legal and political repercussions. From the indescribably obscene murder of four African American children attending Sunday school at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sept. 15, 1963, to the bloody bombing of the Tomb of Ali in Najaf, Iraq almost exactly forty years later, on Aug. 29, 2003, is perhaps not as much of a giant historical leap as it might initially appear.
Our nation’s power structure has reduced the magnificent life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to four words from a single “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. Only a few years later, Dr. King’s analysis (near the end of his life) of the interrelated triple evils: Racism, war, and poverty, led him to publicly oppose the Vietnam War, a massively controversial decision at the time. These same evils drive the U.S. government’s response to the threat of terrorism today. George W. Bush has been described as the walking embodiment of Dr. King’s “triple evils” of racism, war and economic injustice. The civil rights revolution of the 1960s provides one of the best models we have of ordinary Americans struggling, often against overwhelming odds, to overcome such injustice.
Committee to Assist Southern Lawyers
Forming the Committee to Assist Southern Lawyers (CASL) was simultaneously a wing and a prayer, and an eminently practical political and legal strategy. Federal civil rights protections went “on the books” in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These laws emerged from the confrontations between Fourteenth Amendment Due Process and Equal Protection, and the “real” law of the Southern streets, all-white juries, poll taxes, “literacy” tests, KKK/FBI conspiracy, and lynch mobs.
As mentioned in Ernie’s speech in Hopewell, Va., the federal supremacy of pro-civil rights legal pronouncements made the civil rights movement a legal winner against the archaic state segregation codes. The NLG Detroit Chapter inspired innovation by placing storefront volunteer lawyers in the midst of the Klan and SNCC (Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee) voting rights campaigns in the south. Some would say it was radical excess, or even the foolish dangerousness after all, many people were killed in the course of these struggles.
It was arguably reckless of SNCC and NLG, and the other COFO groups to expose young students to the nightmarish tension and violence of Mississippi, especially in view of the indifference of federal authorities.
Yet CASL demonstrated a crucial difference between NLG/NCBL-type legal service and some others, a difference that is part of the essence of being a people’s lawyer. Lawyers can win cases. But only movements can win human rights and effectively defend them from corporate and state power. By physically joining the southern Freedom Movement in the front lines of their nonviolent war against KKK terrorism, even if only temporarily and symbolically, NLG/CASL lawyers played a crucial role, in addition to providing their best legal efforts to win cases. They demonstrated solidarity in the face of systematic injustice. This lesson, if we learn it, is likely to prove valuable to us in the coming months, as the U.S. electorate makes decisions about George W. Bush’s political fate and other issues. It is right and proper that we progressive legal professionals take the opportunity, in light of the historical lessons of the sixties, to consider the effectiveness of legal support of political organizing in the streets, compared with traditional legal work in the courts that sometimes serves our egos and pays the bills.
To paraphrase CORE’s David Dennis, the best way we can remember the victims of Sept. 11, 2001, and also the less well-documented victims of U.S. imperialism, state terrorism, and racist corporate power here at home and around the world, is “We’ve got to stand up and demand our rights.”
“We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.
Until the killing of Black mothers’ sons
Is as important as the killing of white mothers’ sons.
…Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot I’ve come to realize
That teaching others to stand and fight is the only way our struggle survives.”
-Bernice Johnson Reagon