Address to the National Bar Association

Detroit, MI | August 3, 1966

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.

It is no secret that the Negro lawyer has suffered from discrimination. It is no secret that for years the Negro lawyer has sacrificed income to provide virtually the only legal services available to the Negro, in the ghetto or in the South.

It is no secret that you had ample cause to suspect, to resist, even to block a program that would pay lawyers, many of them white lawyers, to come into the ghetto and the deep South to provide services you have been providing free.

But until tonight, it has been a secret — a tragic secret — that the very group that had the most to lose has in fact given the most to this new program of Justice For The Poor.

So let it be writ large tonight — for all to see — that the 1% of the entire legal profession in the USA who are black have contributed as much as the other 99% who are white.

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.

With one percent of the lawyers, you now have 20% of the membership of our National Advisory Board. That's one case where I don't think you have cause to complain about minority group representation.

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.

I could not help but make a comparison of two decisions which were handed down last month — one from the International Court in the Hague written by some of the most eminent jurists in the world — the second, from the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia written by Judge Raymond Pace Alexander.

Both dealt — in a way - with the same issues: Whether the victims of injustice were to have their day in court.

The International Court of Justice was asked to determine whether the South African system of Apartheid violated international law.

Judge Alexander was being asked to decide on far more than the legality of the Legal Services Program. He was asked to decide whether such a-program was in the public interest. And if I had to choose between the two — as to which advanced the rule of law and the cause of justice and human dignity more, it would be, beyond a doubt, the decision by your own Judge Alexander.

The International Court of Justice ducked the fundamental moral, political and legal issues by resort to a technicality.

Judge Alexander did not. He ruled:

"Anyone who has lived or worked among the poor or who is sensitive to the currents swirling through this segment of our population knows the poor are just prone to legal trouble. It is, in a sense, a way of life for them. It is in the public interest that this program go forward. Let it begin ... now."

That is a landmark decision — a first — a classic.

It has been said by many noted commentaries that the decision of the International Court of Justice weakened world-wide confidence in the rule of law.

Well, I say to you that the decision of Judge Alexander strengthened the belief of the poor that justice is not only for the rich, not only for the powerful, and not only for the white man.

A statement to the United States Senate written jointly by your president, the president of the American Bar Association, and two other national figures, sums up both the need and the centrality of the Legal Services Program in the War on Poverty. You may even detect the fine hand of your president in the first sentence:

"The law — known in the ghetto as "the man" — seems to the poor man always to be on the other side.

"If a man believes that he is oppressed, that he lacks opportunity, that the power of society is both against him and irresistible, and that there is no one who is interested in or capable of protecting him from the forces that are holding him down, he will stay forever in the slum in which fortune has deposited him...what then can a legal service accomplish that can alter his situation?

"The short answer is...that providing him with a belief in the existence of justice will restore the self-reliance, the hope, the ambition that he may have lost in early childhood. Injustice... makes men want to tear things down."

You know and I know that law enforcement isn't enough. Law has to mean something more than "be good", "behave yourself", "wait patiently", and above all "cool it."

The law may be impartial — but it cannot be neutral. The law must either be a friend and a protector — or it will be perceived as the enemy.

How are we going to achieve that — when for all too many Negroes, the law is synonymous with Whitey and Mr. Charley.

Your involvement in Legal Services Program — your endorsement — has been crucial in community after community. We have not tolerated — and will not tolerate — any attempt, direct or indirect, to exclude the Negro lawyer or the minority bar from maximum participation in these programs.

But let us be frank. Endorsement by the National Bar Association, involvement by Negro lawyers in legal services programs is not — by itself – going to automatically eliminate distrust of the law for those who equate the law, the courts, and law enforcement with Whitey and Mr. Charley.

Therefore, tonight I want to put to you three proposals — for your consideration — proposals that I hope will begin to increase confidence in the law -proposals which will need your support.

First, more members of the National Bar Association must become involved in the legal services programs. Most of you have private practice – which you have labored long to build and should not give up. But it is urgent that you accept some kind of part-time position not just to take specific cases, but also to acquaint new and often unexperienced lawyers with the community and share with them the contacts, the know-how and the unique expertise you have built up over the years;

To train lay persons to serve as investigators and lawyers' aides so that they can help make people aware of the availability and usefulness of legal services.

My second proposal is that we broadcast to the world and to the ghetto the legal rights and protection now available for the first time in our nation's history.

In Pittsburgh, a large poster has been tacked up on billboards. One part of that poster starts in big bold face letters with the words:


It goes on:

"Know your rights. If the constable comes to seal your goods for non-payment of rent, you're entitled to first choice of $300 worth of your furnishings — $600 for husband and wife. And, in addition, you get to keep clothes, books, records, and certain other personal items.

"Don't sign a lease before seeing a lawyer. Most leases strip the tenant of the $300 exemption. Get written receipts for every payoff to constable or landlord."

That poster was paid for and put up by the Mayor's commission — that's the first time I know of where the city has paid to inform citizens about their rights against the city's own officials. The law is far from perfect. But the poor suffer a great deal from injuries that the law could have prevented.

In the gospel of St. Luke, there is a passage that reads:

"Woe unto you, lawyers; For ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered."

If the law is to be the friend and protector of the poor, we lawyers must stop making it our own private profession — a fraternity secret to be shared only by the few. Knowledge, rights, justice belong to everyone.

Third and finally, we need you to assist in the development of new institutions which will enable people to get justice more quickly, more cheaply and more effectively.

Neighborhood law firms mean that the poor will have a friendly lawyer. But to the poor, neighborhood law firms will not be enough. It only means that they will have a friendly lawyer to help them in an unfriendly court after an unfriendly police officer has arrested them, and an unfriendly prosecutor, a slum lord or local merchant brings them to trial before an unfriendly or unsympathetic judge. There are too few judges like Judge Alexander – who have felt and struggled personally with poverty and discrimination — or in Judge Alexander's words, who have

"Seen at first hand the helplessness and bewilderment of the poor when failed with the legalities of our complex society."

We need more men who share that perspective sitting as judges, and even as prosecutors and police commissioners.

A good lawyer can make the odds a little better. But those odds are still unfair for the poor man, woman or child.

We need to begin to devise ways in which disputes can be settled locally, within the community — through neighborhood conciliation boards.

We need to involve the poor themselves in law enforcement, in code inspection, in policing the practices of merchants and landlords and welfare authorities.

Above all, we need to begin to build a sense of community, of full membership and full citizenship in a society that does not pit "we" against "they," the powerful against the poor, or white against black.

Last week, Bayard Rustin was talking about the violence in Cleveland and Chicago. All of a sudden, he broke off and said:

"Do you know what my first thoughts were when I read in the paper about the murder of those eight nurses in Chicago? The first thing that came to my mind was to pray that the person who had done it was white. I didn't think first of those poor girls. I only thought of what it might mean if the murderer had been Negro. That's how much racism has dehumanized us all," said Rustin.

Last Friday, July 29, the New York Times carried another example.

In the troubled East New York area, the whites stood on the south side of New Lots Avenue yesterday and the Negroes on the north, and there was general relief that the youth arrested Wednesday in the slaying of an 11-year old Negro boy has been a Negro himself.

"Yes, it's much easier," said Frank Fauci, the owner of Frank's restaurant ... "Just think if it had been a white boy."

When a society has to say: Thank God it was a Negro who did the killing — or thank God it was a white, then that society is sick. All of us have been maimed, scarred — dehumanized.

A writer and poet, Kahlil Gibran put it this way:

"The righteous is not innocent of the deeds of the wicked. You cannot separate the just from the unjust, and the good from the wicked; For they stand together, before the face of the sun, even as the black thread and the white are woven together. And when the black thread breaks, the weaver shall look into the whole cloth, and he shall examine the loom also."

We know what the collective effect of discrimination and poverty have been on the black thread.

But if the War on Poverty means anything, it is a statement that we must look – not just to the poor — but to the whole cloth too — and even to the loom.

The whole fabric of our society must be rewoven — and the patterns we must weave are patterns of justice, opportunity, dignity and mutual respect.

That's why the Legal Services Program has so much 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 gave 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 that 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 are 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 — judge or policeman, or lawyer, — is automatically perceived as the enemy, as the agent of a hostile, unjust society.