The approaching year marks momentous milestones in our country’s elusive quest for racial and social justice. Next year, 2013, will mark the 50th anniversary of the famous “March on Washington” and Dr. King’s immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. Earlier that summer, on June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy, motivated in part by the national attention garnered by the atrocities visited on Birmingham, Ala., civil rights protesters, delivered a speech in which he formally proposed what ultimately became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Later that same day, World War II veteran and civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered in his driveway in Mississippi.
In response to these events, on June 21, 1963, President Kennedy summoned more than 200 of the country’s most prominent lawyers to the White House. The assembled group reportedly included state bar presidents, leaders in major law firms and five past presidents of the American Bar Association. He urged them to defend the rule of law. He urged them to protect civil rights. He urged them to use the law to oppose state-sponsored segregation and terrorism in the South. He urged them to use their influence, resources and training for the greater good.
That same day, The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law was born. In 2013, the Lawyers’ Committee turns 50. Sadly, however, its work is far from done. These days, the Lawyers’ Committee leads a nationwide nonpartisan “Election Protection” program focusing on voting rights of the poor, minorities, senior citizens, immigrants, students and disabled persons. Today, a majority of states engage in voter suppression by either requiring photo identification to vote or having such legislation pending.
These legislative efforts garner broad support in the absence of any documented instances of past identification-related voter fraud. (To see this illustrated, visit www.mapofshame.org.) Other issues of President Kennedy’s day, such as housing discrimination, loan scams that prey on the poor, and unsophisticated and trampled immigrant rights, persist today.
Barbara Arnwine, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee, says that progress on racial and social justice issues is “not linear—it zigzags” and that “inertia means retrogression.”
In my 20-plus years as part of the legal profession diversity dialogue, I have seen a lot of zigzagging. In big companies, law firms and law departments, diversity progress has been pyrrhic, erratic, fleeting and seasonal. We celebrate “success” that conveniently ignores the reality that the proverbial needle has not really moved. Inertia has become regression.
If President Obama were to summon the 200 most prominent lawyers in the country to the White House tomorrow, would those assembled look much different than the 1963 gathering?
Next year is also momentous on a personal note for me. August 2013 will mark my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. As I reflected on 1963 and the 50 years that followed, I asked my parents for their perspectives. My dad, a Navy veteran who earned his college degree under the then newly enacted GI Bill, said that his access to affordable college made the difference for us as a family. To him, access to quality, affordable education is the civil rights issue of our day. For her part, my mom recalled the poll tax receipt that she had to present back in 1963 to get a marriage license. My mom still has that poll tax receipt. We cannot forget where we have been, she said.
They both challenged me with my obligation as a lawyer to be a force for the greater good. “Son,” they said, “there probably weren’t very many black lawyers in the room that day with President Kennedy. But you are here now. What are you going to do for the greater good?” So, I challenge myself. And I hope you will challenge yourself too.
John Lewis Jr. is senior managing compliance counsel for The Coca-Cola Co.