Making the Connection

Diversity extends far beyond issues of black and white.

A couple of years ago, I observed with my oldest daughter, then 12 years old, our annual ritual in celebration of the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday. We drove to the "Sweet Auburn" district near downtown Atlanta to be part of the festivities. We heard speeches. We saw people of every conceivable ethnic background and nationality gather to honor Dr. King on the national monument grounds. Then we settled in on the sidewalk of Auburn Ave. near the steps of historic Ebenezer Baptist Church to take in the King Day parade.

As the parade began, we saw the regular assortment of King Day

parade participants--marching bands, floats, drill teams and the iconic civil rights marchers, predominately African-Americans, marching as they did during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. But this parade featured some new images. Also marching in the parade were Tibetan monks and Mexican migrant workers together with labor unions and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered marchers. There were representatives of senior citizen groups, veterans' groups, the physically challenged, the homeless and environmentalists. All of these disparate
(and very different) groups proudly assembled claiming to be heirs of Dr. King's dream.

As my precocious 12-year-old correctly observed, in its beginnings Dr. King's work focused on the inequities between black and white Americans. She and her sister had heard the stories from their grandparents of life under Jim Crow. However, on that day, myriad groups and causes identified with and laid claim to a broadened iteration of "the dream." So it is with our diversity dialogue. Diversity is no longer just an issue of "black and white."

Today, as we struggle for the first time in our history with four distinct generations in the workplace, the diversity dialogue also is a discussion of intergenerational diversity. (Think of your parents interacting with their grandkids at work.) As LGBT constituencies grow in visibility, economic clout and political currency, the diversity dialogue of the 21st century is also about sexual orientation. Today's diversity dialogue is about how we empower women. Today's diversity dialogue, as it was in Dr. King's day, is about the forgotten, the silenced and the institutionally marginalized, and all that we collectively stand to lose by not bringing their talent, energy, perspective and passion to the marketplace.

During my father's civil rights movement, lawyers led the way. Through creative and passionate advocacy, they lowered the institutional barriers of segregation, disenfranchisement and denial of basic humanity that crushed the hopes of the descendants of U.S. chattel slavery. I am a direct beneficiary of their work.

But what of my daughters' civil rights movement? What will that generation say of our collective resolve as lawyers to lower barriers and unleash the untapped energy of those not currently at "the table?" As in-house lawyers, are we not extraordinarily better equipped to drive diversity in comparison to our under-resourced, outsider, anti-establishment civil rights lawyer predecessors?

One of the less heralded heroes of the 20th century's civil rights movement was Charles Hamilton Houston. Houston is generally credited with conceiving and leading the legal strategy to end government-sponsored segregation. A 1915 graduate of Amherst and 1923 Harvard Law graduate, Houston became the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. (Decades later, Barack Obama became the Harvard Law Review's first black president.) As dean of Howard Law School and legal director of the NAACP, Houston's prot?g?s included Thurgood Marshall. In his charge to a 1930's graduating law school class, Houston framed our obligation as lawyers this way: A lawyer, he explained, was an agent for social change-- "either a social engineer or a parasite on society."

How do you want to be remembered?

John Lewis Jr.

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