For Black History Month: A Tribute to Black Lawyers

“One percent of the entire legal profession in the USA who are black have contributed as much as the other 99 percent who are white.”
Sargent Shriver | Detroit, MI | August 3, 1966

Our Quote of the Week acknowledges the contribution of Black attorneys in supporting and developing the Legal Services program of the War on Poverty — and in promoting justice in the United States.

We could not think of a better way to kick off Black History Month than by revisiting a speech that Sargent Shriver gave before the National Bar Association in 1966, during the time Shriver was the Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity. In the speech, Shriver outlined the many ways in which members of the association, who were predominantly Black, had made possible the successes of the Legal Services program. He listed a long series of accomplishments on the part of Black attorneys:

“This new program — Justice for the Poor — is administered under the directorship of a member of the National Bar Association - Theodore Berry. This program — Justice for the Poor — was designed and launched by two members of this association, the husband-wife team of Jean and Edgar Cahn. Theodore Coggs, your past president, served on our original planning committee, along with other distinguished members of this association — Pauli Murray, Bob Ming, Clyde Ferguson and Revius Ortique. [...] Members of this association have gone on the road to promote legal services programs, to design them and win acceptance for them — William Thompson, Dean Kenneth Tolette, Xenaphon Lang, C. C. Spaulding, Robert Collins. Right here in Detroit, Claudia Shropshire, has just been named head of the Legal Services Program. I didn’t arrange that to insure a warm welcome. I had nothing to do with it. But she deserved that post. And Revius Ortique, your president, deserves special tribute as both a critic and a missionary, a mediator and a statesman. He has been a staunch and outspoken advocate on behalf of the minority bar — its special concerns and its special strengths. But he has been just as vigorous an advocate on behalf of the poor, the helpless, those who have suffered the injustice of discrimination. Finally, the latest issue of Time, the August 5 issue, contains an account of the latest landmark contribution of a member of the National Bar Association — the decision handed down last month by your past president, Judge Raymond Pace Alexander.”

(Judge Alexander had upheld the Legal Services program when its legality had been challenged.)

For Sargent Shriver, the Legal Services program had a special role among the programs of the War on Poverty. Trained as an attorney, Shriver believed that providing access to legal protection must be a part of creating economic opportunity for all. Shriver knew that lack of legal resources and mistrust of the law were common in poor communities and particularly in Black communities, who had suffered acute injustices for centuries. His celebration of Black attorneys, therefore, and his appeal to them to continue to represent their communities by supporting Legal Services, held particular significance. Shriver ended his appeal by placing the work into a larger context:

“That’s what we are working for in the War Against Poverty — [...t]he day when no officer of the law — judge or policeman, or lawyer — is automatically perceived as the enemy, as the agent of a hostile, unjust society.”

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Sargent Shriver | Detroit, MI | August 3, 1966

Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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