Within the last 30 days, the legal profession of the United States has established its own "Foreign Legion". In the past three weeks, 987 lawyers and law students have volunteered to serve full time in "the other America". They volunteered to work:
- Not for big salaries
- Not in plush downtown law firms
- Not in General Counsel's offices of the U.S. Government
Instead, like Peace Corps volunteers who go abroad to share the housing, the transportation, the food, the life of foreign peoples, these able and dedicated members of our profession — this new breed of lawyers has volunteered to sacrifice the assured security of traditional career lines, to forsake the well-trod path that leads step by step from law clerk to senior partner — and instead, to venture forth into the ghettoes, the rural pockets of poverty, the Indian reservations and migrant worker camps. These volunteers are manning the outposts of our society, establishing the rule of law in lawless territory.
These lawyers are not going out giving medical inoculations. They're not distributing surplus food or clothing, or medicine. They are bringing justice to the poor.
Orison Marden, the president-elect of the American Bar Association said:
"I had often thought of legal aid as the "lawyer's Red Cross." But it is far more than that. Indeed, the achievement of justice between human beings transcends in importance virtually every other value we have. 'Justice' said Daniel Webster 'is the greatest interest of man on earth.'"
Daniel Webster would be proud of the legal profession today. I know that. I have never been prouder as a lawyer than the day I heard how our profession had responded to the call for help. It was a great day for the profession, a great day for justice, a great day for the poor and the underprivileged of this nation.
It was a milestone, a turning point, a high water point in a long historic tradition of public service, and of dedication to the cause of justice.
So right now law and lawyers are right smack in the middle of the War on Poverty. And legal services are an essential part of everything we are doing. Because this is no handout program. There are no giveaways in the War on Poverty. We're investing in human dignity, not doles. And we're investing in legal services as the protector of that dignity, the best defense man has yet devised against the forces which threaten his inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Theodore Voorhees, President of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association put it this way:
"...The heart of the new national effort to combat poverty has to be the providing of legal services. Whether we are talking in terms of a man's right to an opportunity for employment, or to receive welfare that is legally due him in the absence of a job, or to live in an inhabitable dwelling under the minimum standards of the rent and housing laws, or to keep his child in a friendly or unfriendly school, or to escape victimization at the hands of the unscrupulous purveyor of consumer goods, the whole bundle of rights that the poor ought to share with the rest of us are utterly meaningless to them unless legal representation is provided to give those rights reality. The anti-poverty drive to bring new opportunities of employment, health, and education into the immediate neighborhood of the poor will inevitably fall far short of its mark unless lawyers and the Legal Service Program are in the vanguard. They should spearhead the whole program."
That's just what has happened. The framers of our Constitution knew what they were doing when, in the preamble, they listed among the chief purposes of the Constitution "to establish justice." Justice is first for the Office of Economic Opportunity, too, a top priority in our attempt to renew the promise of that constitution to 35 million fellow Americans.
Today, in renewing that promise, our society has come to a crisis. We stand at the crossroads. In attempting to correct longstanding injustice, in attempting to alleviate human misery and eliminate poverty, we have the choice of using law as an instrument of peaceful change — as a means of both insuring domestic tranquility and at the same time insuring to ourselves and our posterity the blessings of liberty. Or we can turn our backs on our entire legal tradition, throw the baby out with the bath, and try quicker, violent remedies that appear to work, but which really destroy rather than enhance freedom, justice and respect for individuals.
Those who advocate violence cry out: "We can wait no longer. We want freedom now."
But those of us who are champions of social change through law should not be content to limit our cry simply to "freedom now."
We must take the offensive. Our cry must be "justice now", "health now" "education now", "food now", "jobs now" — as well as "freedom now."
But we will not accomplish any of these if all we say to the rioter on the streets is: "Violence will not be permitted." We cannot do nothing. Nor can we do the same old things in the same old ways. We must have new education programs, new food programs, new health programs and new legal programs.
Law must come to mean something more affirmative than maintaining order for order's sake.
I will never forget the headline that appeared on the front page of many newspapers last summer at the time of the riots in Watts. In big bold letters, Chief Parker of the Los Angeles Police Department was quoted as saying: “We're on top.” “They're on the bottom."
Those nine words typified a mentality that divided a city — a mentality that pits "we" against "they" — a mentality that denies the common humanity of all men — a mentality that makes law synonymous with repression and frustration and despair without any end in sight.
The second story reported an outbreak of violence here in Chicago. It warned, in effect, that the rule of law cannot be secure in the courts or anywhere else unless it is extended beyond the courts, beyond the precinct station and into the community.
That's what we're trying to do through establishing neighborhood law offices. We're trying to take respect for and understanding of and confidence in the law into the neighborhood. We're trying to extend justice into all dimensions of the poor person's life so that he can begin to see and understand and believe that the forces of law and order are his friends and allies.
This is not a radical principle. If anything, it is conservative — as old as the law itself.
We have just funded, in Texas, four Legal Service Programs. In Dallas, Corpus Christi, Houston and Austin. These are not radical communities dominated by some irresponsible fringe element. Yet every one of those communities made legal service programs a major priority component in its local anti-poverty program.
The American Bar Association is certainly not a subversive organization — or an instrument of some international Communist conspiracy. Yet, the ABA has twice endorsed the Legal Service Program of the War on Poverty. In fact, the very day the House of Delegates endorsed the Legal Services Program, it also passed a resolution condemning the Supreme Court's reapportionment decisions. I might add, the endorsement of our program was unanimous. In fact, the chief criticism we have received from the Bar is that we have only put twenty five million dollars into the program this past fiscal year.
It may come as a surprise to you — but lawyers are not the only people who want this program. The poor want it just as much — maybe more.
In community after community, we have seen legal services become one of the first demands of the poor. They take it as a touchstone, the test of whether the poverty program is really sincere in proclaiming that the poor are to be treated as human beings, as full citizens.
In San Francisco for instance, where the poor people constitute over 50% of the board of the anti-poverty agency, the application for legal services was approved and submitted long before the big package of other programs.
On the Navajo Reservation, we found in chapterhouse after chapterhouse that the Legal Service Program ran neck and neck with Head Start – our pre-school program. Why is this?
Perhaps it's because the poor are insecure. And rights are a source of security. Like the mother of five children whose welfare was suddenly terminated — when the roof of their house burned off because the welfare officials decided she was living in unsuitable housing and therefore was ineligible.
Perhaps its because the poor cannot afford even the smallest misfortune. And the law can sometimes avert disaster. Like it did for the taxi driver in Washington, D.C. whose suspended license was restored the night before Christmas.
Or like it did for the father of two whose unemployment compensation was cut off — when he failed to appear for an appointment of which he had not been notified.
Perhaps it's because the poor are weak. And the law is a source of strength.
Like the Indian sheepherders who were able to get a fair price for their wool because a lawyer advised them how to set up a cooperative so that they were able to market their wool together and attract competitive bidding.
Perhaps it's because the poor are readily victimized. And law is a source of redress. As it was for the elderly couple hounded for payments totaling $500 on a TV set sold to them as new but found to be used, defective, and worth less than $200 even if new and in perfect condition.
But perhaps, most basically, the poor want legal services because now they are treated as second-class citizens. And legal representation is both a symbol and a guarantee of first class citizenship — full citizenship.
The director of our Legal Services Program, Clinton Bamberger — told me about a conversation he had recently with one State Bar Association. This association at first objected violently to a Legal Services Program that would provide lawyers for migrant farm workers. Bamberger said to them: "We would be glad to stipulate that the Legal Services Programs in your State will not provide attorneys for farm workers, if the State Bar would similarly stipulate that no law firm in the State would provide representation for growers."
That's why those workers wanted Legal Services: — because they know that economic opportunity without full recourse to the law can easily become nothing more than serfdom with better rations.
And that's why legal services are a central part of the War on Poverty. As a member of the legal profession, I take great pride in the fact that the organized Bar has supported this program — not grudgingly, not unwillingly — but enthusiastically and out of a spontaneous sense of professional responsibility.
At the beginning of this program, some newspaper reporters were ready to write a new script. They called it Medicare II — with the ABA cast in the leading role. Had they guessed right, our image would have taken the same beating as the medical profession. And we might have had to spend as many hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to restore public confidence and public trust. But the experts and the cynics were wrong.
As a profession, we are defending the rule of law — not as a bastion of privilege — but as a revolutionary ideal — as fundamental as democracy itself — as timeless as the principle of justice — as current as the latest Supreme Court decision.
That's why the legal profession has provided one of the great new weapons in the War Against Poverty — justice — legal justice — social justice -moral justice — for all.
That weapon has something in common with all our other programs — it even has something in common with a program so seemingly different as Head Start -the pre-school program for four and five year olds.
We give the children in Head Start eye tests. A month ago I met with the executive director of the Massachusetts Association for the Prevention of Blindness. She told me about the eye examination she had given to the pre-school children in Head Start last summer. Eye examinations for children utilize pictures, not letters. One of the pictures projected is a teddy bear. Last summer, some 40%of the children in Project Head Start identified the teddy bear as a rat.
That's more than a communication problem — that's a problem that, governs the way the world is actually perceived — the way concepts are developed — and the way the entire environment is treated as friend or foe — rat or teddy bear. In Head Start, we are working for the day when a teddy bear is not perceived as a rat — as the enemy.
In the Legal Services Program we're doing a similar thing. We're working for the day when a policeman, an official, a representative of law and order is not perceived as the enemy — as the source of danger and symbol of oppression.
We have to alter — most basically — the perceptions of both children and adults. But we cannot alter perceptions unless we alter people's experiences.
For the little child it is easier. Just holding a teddy bear — cuddling it, seeing it — is enough.
For the adult, or the teenager, he will have to experience the law as a protector, a friend, an ally — not cuddly maybe, but fair and equitable — his protector and his friend — if we are to alter his perceptions.
That's what we're working for in the War Against Poverty — the day when no teddy bear is perceived as a rat. The day when no officer of the law — policemen or lawyer — is automatically perceived as the enemy, as the agent of a hostile, unjust society.
On that day, an age-old dream will have came true.
Because the words "equal justice under law" will have proven to be more than a worn-out cliché. For we know now that it still has power to move the hearts and stir the hopes of men and women everywhere.
It will take a revolution — a peaceful revolution — social change under law. But to that revolution, every last one of us, all of us together, have pledged, in the words of the signers, "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."