For Black History Month: Remembering Jean Cahn

“Justice for the Poor was designed and launched by two members of the [National Bar] [A]ssociation, the husband-wife team of Jean and Edgar Cahn.”
Sargent Shriver | Detroit, MI | August 3, 1966

Our Quote of the Week acknowledges the role of African American attorney and activist Jean Camper Cahn in the creation of Legal Services, the War on Poverty program created to provide legal protection for Americans living in poverty. During Black History Month, we celebrate Cahn for her efforts in upholding justice for all.

On August 3, 1966, Sargent Shriver addressed a predominantly African American audience of National Bar Association members. He recounted the notable contributions of Black attorneys to the justice system, including the central role that Mrs. Cahn and her husband Edgar played in the creation of Legal Services.

In his yet-to-be-released memoir about The War on Poverty, We Called It a War, Shriver remembers Cahn’s fundamental role in the success of Legal Services:

“In the summer of 1964, Adam Yarmolinsky suggested I read an article in the July issue of the Yale Law Journal entitled ‘The War on Poverty: a Civilian Perspective.’ Written by two young lawyers, Edgar and Jean Cahn, it excited me as much as anything I had read or heard about fighting poverty. In simple, intensely practical but emotionally charged terms, it defined the scope of services to be performed by a neighborhood law office. It should be open to the residents of the neighborhood, and the lawyers, whose services were supported by a university or government agency, would become aggressive advocates of the rights of the poor. It was so immediately apparent that this service was needed that I telephoned the Cahns and told them I wanted their ideas developed into a program that could be folded into the diverse mix of Community Action. They agreed, formed a task force panel on law and poverty, and, in addition to drafting a program, organized a Conference on Law and Poverty at the National Institute of Mental Health. The time for Legal Services for the poor had arrived.”

Shriver recalls that Cahn focused specifically on convincing members of bar associations around the country, a significant number of whom were skeptical about Legal Services, of the value of the program:

“Jean Cahn traveled the country explaining the programs to local bar associations. Conferences were held, and finally, in February of 1965, the American Bar Association approved a resolution supporting the extension and improvement of legal services to the poor. With that endorsement, we could move ahead and complete the design of the OEO prototype and begin to honor those Community Action agencies that had already called for a legal service component.”

Although Shriver and Cahn would eventually have a falling out over the vision for Legal Services, it is undeniable that her leadership was fundamental in the shaping and acceptance of this nationwide program that continues to support Americans dealing with legal disputes, who do not have the financial means to hire an attorney.

A lifelong supporter of social causes, Cahn passed away in 1991 at the age of 55 after a battle with breast cancer. You can read more about her many accomplishments here.

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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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