54 Years Later, The Lawyers’ Committee Continues Our Fight for Justice

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy issued a national call to action for lawyers to provide pro bono legal services and resources to address the racial discrimination that plagued our country. What resulted was the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law. As we celebrate the 54th anniversary of our founding and acknowledge that much progress has been made, we must also recognize that the role and mission of the Lawyers’ Committee remains as vital and as pertinent today as it did over five decades ago.

Lester Charles, former Lawyers’ Committee co-chair and longtime board member, reflects on the challenges we faced as a new organization following President Kennedy’s original call to action and draws parallels between the climate during the civil rights era and our current fight to secure equal justice for all:

President John F. Kennedy’s call for American lawyers to become involved in civil rights on June 21, 1953, resulted in the creation of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization committed to securing equal justice for all through the rule of law. The Committee has endured and evolved in response to changing circumstances. It began by sending volunteer lawyers to Mississippi and other southern states in 1964, and has grown into an organization that leverages the strength of it skilled legal staff with the pro bono public for impact litigation, public policy research and public education in the areas of employment, education, housing, environmental justice, community economic development, voting rights, criminal justice reform and the stop hate initiative.

The last 54 years have found Lawyers’ Committee on the forefront of many major battlegrounds in the fight toward justice. They opened an office in Cairo, Illinois in the late 1960's in response to violence targeting minority residents. In the 1970's, the Lawyers’ Committee created the South Africa Project to observe trials in South Africa and Namibia and testify before the United Nations and the United States Congress resulting end of apartheid.

In recent years, the Lawyers’ Committee had continued to work to confront civil rights issue. It leads the Election Protection Project to provide a live hotline for voters, legal education, and support of free in the largest single pro bono project in the world. It opened a local affiliate, the Mississippi Center for Justice, to assist in housing and community economic development in Louisiana and Mississippi in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. More recently, the pro bono lawyers working with the Committee participated in the Clemency Project in response to President Obama’s program to commute sentences of federal prisoners that were sentenced to long terms for drug related crimes.

The Lawyers’ Committee has been a strong player in the enforcement of civil rights and a vocal source of information and education about the need and justification for the protections of minorities and the importance of the rule of law. While it has many accomplishments, there is still much more to be done.

With the apparent lack of interest, if not hostility, to the enforcement of civil rights by the current administration, the work of the Committee is just as important now as in any time it its history, and I am confident that it will rise to the occasion, with all of its resources, as it has in the past until the goal of equal justice for all is a reality.

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