Special to the Philanthropy Journal
By Ayan Ajeen
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy issued a national call to action for lawyers to provide pro bono legal services and resources to address the racial discrimination that plagued our country. What resulted was the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. As they celebrate the 55th anniversary of their founding and acknowledge that much progress has been made, the Lawyers’ Committee must also recognize that their role and mission remains as vital and as pertinent today as it did over five decades ago.
President John F. Kennedy’s call for American lawyers to become involved in civil rights on June 21, 1963, resulted in the creation of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization committed to securing equal justice for all through the rule of law. The Committee has endured and evolved in response to changing circumstances. It began by sending volunteer lawyers to Mississippi and other southern states in 1964, and has grown into an organization that leverages the strength of it skilled legal staff with the pro bono public for impact litigation, public policy research and public education in the areas of employment, education, housing, environmental justice, community economic development, voting rights, criminal justice reform and the stop hate initiative.
The last 55 years have found Lawyers’ Committee on the forefront of many major battlegrounds in the fight toward justice. They opened an office in Cairo, Illinois in the late 1960’s in response to violence targeting minority residents. In the 1970’s, the Lawyers’ Committee created the South Africa Project to observe trials in South Africa and Namibia and testify before the United Nations and the United States Congress resulting end of apartheid.
In recent years, the Lawyers’ Committee had continued to work to confront civil rights issues. It leads the Election Protection Project to provide a live hotline for voters, legal education, and support of free in the largest single pro bono project in the world. It opened a local affiliate, the Mississippi Center for Justice, to assist in housing and community economic development in Louisiana and Mississippi in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. More recently, the pro bono lawyers working with the Committee participated in the Clemency Project in response to President Obama’s program to commute sentences of federal prisoners that were sentenced to long terms for drug related crimes.
One of the Lawyers’ Committee’s major improvements in regards to communication is appeals. They communicate with their audience by sending out one to two weekly e-blasts. When their efforts affect court cases, when they organize/join protests, or when there is a setback in civil rights efforts at the hands of the current administration, they reach out to their followers.
Their objective is to tell key publics what the Committee is doing to mitigate the issue at hand and that the Committee’s efforts are halted without their help. The appeals at The Lawyers Committee put civil rights issues into perspective. Not all civil rights issues seem to affect everyone, but the appeals play a role in showing how severe the issue at hand is for the community involved.
The appeals further explaining the issue at hand. Perhaps their most important role is explaining what the Committee is doing to alleviate the issue. In some ways, that’s part of the benefit. Committee followers are supporting an organization that is doing meaningful and reputable work. If they contribute to the cause, they play a direct role in the work of the Laywers’ Committee.
The Lawyers’ Committee usually has an urgent tone. The issues they were working on tend to be time sensitive, and the messages sent to supporters reflect that.
At the Lawyers’ Committee, they sign off by telling supporters that the Committee is constantly working to advance civil rights and ensure justice for all, but this would not be possible without their help. And that’s true! Contributions allow the Committee to continue it’s work, and the Committee wants their supporters to know how important their donations are.
Appeals have provided the Lawyers’ Committee with an intimate way of communicating with their followers, tell them what they are doing to mitigate key issues, and ask them to play a role in their mission.
The Lawyers’ Committee has been a strong player in the enforcement of civil rights and a vocal source of information and education about the need and justification for the protections of minorities and the importance of the rule of law. While it has many accomplishments, there is still much more to be done.
With the apparent lack of interest, if not hostility, to the enforcement of civil rights by the current administration, the work of the Committee is just as important now as in any time it its history, and it will rise to the occasion, with all of its resources, as it has in the past until the goal of equal justice for all is a reality.
As Kennedy wished during that first meeting at the White House, the Lawyers’ Committee has grown to become a national organization with eight local affiliates: Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Jackson, Mississippi. As they celebrate their 55th year, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law continues to heed his call for lawyers to reflect on the major social problems of the day and consider how they should apply “our precision, our understanding of technicalities, our adversary skills, our negotiating skills, our understanding of procedural maneuvers” to address and resolve them. In doing so, they carry forward his legacy of working to ensure “equal justice for all.”
Ayan Ajeen is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill studying Journalism and Public Policy. She has worked with The Life Center and The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law as a communications intern. She plans to pursue a career in criminal justice reform as a civil rights attorney.