Speech at the National Equal Justice Library Awards Ceremony

Washington, D.C. | April 12, 2002

Because of their superb competence, dedicated hours of work and legal abilities, Edgar and Jean Cahn produced the incredibly visionary, young, unspoiled lawyers who had the freshness and courage to achieve victory for this revolutionary brand, new enterprise.

Thank you Justice Earl Johnson, Senator Ron Wyden, Judge Abner Mikva, President Marshall Hartman, Professor Joan Meier, Martha Davis, and, of course, my good friend, Edgar Cahn.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson without consulting anyone but his wife inaugurated a War which he called "A War Against Poverty". Nobody knew what that was, and even Johnson himself did not have any specific ideas about how to create "A War Against Poverty". But, his experience in Texas convinced him that a special effort had to be made to help poor people in our country. But, he had no specific idea of what was to be done.

I was very happy at that time. I was running "The Peace Corps". That was a program started because President Kennedy forced me to take charge of it. I had no desire to become involved in any program so unknown, so different, so unexplained; but I was lucky. "The Peace Corps" was quite successful within two years of its beginning. So, I was very happy, relaxed, comfortable, married, and with three children. Yes, life was extremely new, comfortable and exciting for me.

Then, suddenly Kennedy died, killed he was.

In early 1964, shortly after returning from a trip to visit Peace Corps Volunteers and Heads of State around the world, I received a telephone call from President Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson. Johnson said, “Sarge, I need your help right away. In my State of the Union address I called for an "unconditional war against poverty." Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support." So, I am going to announce to the press in an hour or so that you will be the Director of that "War Against Poverty". You will have unlimited sources of money from me, and you will have the world of the poor ahead of you. Keep on working at "The Peace Corps", but beginning tomorrow morning I want you to begin creating " The War Against Poverty." I can support you with all the office space you need and all the money necessary for success".

I thought the President was almost crazy. I knew nothing about the enterprise that he dumped onto my shoulders. But to my incredible surprise, people immediately started to volunteer their services.

One of the most visionary of these earliest volunteers was a man named Adam Yarmolinsky who recommended that I read the Yale Law Journal because he said that in the Yale Law Journal there was an article, superbly created, thoughtful, imaginative, and unforgettable. The title of the article was "A War On Poverty: A Civilian Perspective". Itwas written by two people I never had heard of, Edgar and Jean Cahn. Despite the fact that I knew nothing about the article and I knew nothing about Edgar and Jean Cahn, I took the article home, went to bed about 10 o'clock at night, and read the article.

I couldn't believe what the article said, or the ability with which it was written. I was truthfully swept off my feet, and by 7:30 a.m., the morning after reading the article, I called up the authors, Edgar and Jean Cahn, and begged them to come immediately to my Office.

Edgar and Jean both came. They did not know in advance exactly why I wished to see them. But they found out immediately. I asked them, straightforwardly to quit whatever they were doing and come to the "War Against Poverty" headquarters where we would give them complete help to start their proposed program

Within two or three or four days, Edgar and his wife put together a brand-new program for the United States Government. It was based on their article, "The War Against Poverty: A Civilian Perspective."

Today, I can hardly believe how fast things happened. Inexperienced, idealistic, young lawyers, bright, bright young men and women in their 20s and 30s swamped our office immediately. They had never worked in Government; we barely knew how to enlist them properly. But they were all eager to work and supremely smart and dedicated. Within six months and under the inspiring leadership of Edgar and Jean Cahn, "The Legal Services Program of the United States" was authorized, approved by the President, financially supported by the President, and underway. In the very first year, eight legal action cases opposing the Legal Services Program went to the U.S. Supreme Court: Our lawyers won them all!

There were other obstacles, too. Many, so-called experts scoffed at the idea of "The Legal Services Program", but Jean and Edgar and their associates continued to concentrate on the Program. Because of their superb competence, dedicated hours of work and legal abilities, Edgar and Jean Cahn produced the incredibly visionary, young, unspoiled lawyers who had the freshness and courage to achieve victory for this revolutionary brand, new enterprise.

I could go on and on, but let me conclude these brief remarks by asking Edgar to step forward (Pause)

"Edgar on behalf of the National Equal Justice Library, I present to you the inaugural, Edgar and Jean Cahn Award, which as the Award says, is for "distinguished scholarship on the subject of equal access to justice." May the persons receiving this award in the future live up to the high standard you have set. And may the existence of this award encourage many, many others to emulate your example."