July 01, 2015

INTRODUCTION - The Conscience of the ABA: 50 Years Later, our Fight for Civil Rights and Social Justice Continues

by Lauren Stiller Rikleen

Anniversaries are milestones that offer a special opportunity for reflection and planning. They serve as markers by which past achievements can be measured and as the foundation for identifying and overcoming the barriers that lie ahead.

In the life of an organization, the celebration of its 50th year warrants both poignant remembrances and rigorous analysis. It is a transition point between the generation whose dreams and ideas gave birth to an ideal and those who must pick up the mantle and carry on, allowing those ideals to guide their actions.

Fifty years ago, the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities was created within the American Bar Association. In response to the civil rights revolution that was taking place across the nation, a group of dedicated ABA members worked tirelessly for years to give birth to a section that would galvanize the organized bar. Prior to these efforts, the ABA was silent in the face of the unfolding civil rights crisis around the country.

The voices of our founders are instructive, and provide an important backdrop to the way we approach today’s celebration of a half century of successes. In their descriptions of the past, we see a glimpse into our present, and a strong reminder that the underlying rationale for this Section is as important today as it was at its inception.

Former ABA president Jerome J. Shestack was one of the pioneers who became an early chair of the fledgling Section. When Human Rights magazine was celebrating the Section’s 25th anniversary in 1991, he wrote:

In Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana, freedom marchers faced snarling dogs, lashing fire hoses, cattle prods, and bull whips. In McComb, Mississippi, families awoke to the sound of bombs hurled through the darkness at Negro homes and churches. In Jackson, Mississippi, that June, Medgar Evers stood in his driveway holding a bundle of T-shirts, to be given out to civil rights demonstrators. Suddenly, from a nearby honeysuckle thicket came a shot which tore through his body and killed him. Stamped across the front of the T-shirts were the words, JIM CROW MUST GO.

Shestack then asked:

Where was the organized bar, the lawyers of this nation, during this fateful time? Surely, not on the front lines. . . . By the winter and spring of 1963, when this nation had already witnessed police abuse of freedom riders, murder of civil rights workers, and bombing of Negro churches, the organized bar had yet to raise its voice in any concerted protest.

The words of the former Section leaders that filled the 25th anniversary edition of this magazine are both inspiring and cautionary. They provide a glimpse into the detailed strategy required to convince the ABA that it needed to look outward and see itself as having a powerful voice with a responsibility to respond to the rampant civil rights abuses taking place in this country. As Shestack further noted:

Creating a new section is no sport for the short-winded. A state­ment of purposes must be drafted; an organizing committee must be formed; every section and com­mittee of the ABA is consulted to see whether it has objections, and some invariably do; prospective members must be solicited; enough interest must be demonstrated to convince the bar leaders that there is a real demand for the section; numerous meetings are held before special committees of the Board of Governors; and much more. . . .

[M]any members of the House of Delegates were suspicious of the proposed section and wary of its mission. . . . Delays continued. There were quibbles over the sec­tion’s jurisdiction, questions about its mission, jousting over its name.

In his article reflecting on what the Section had accomplished in its 25 years, former Congressman and Boston College Law School Dean Robert F. Drinan S.J., chair of the Section during its 25th anniversary, com­mented on the culture of the ABA at the time of its creation:

[T]he agenda of the ABA was narrowly limited to issues deemed to be of concern, not to a nation, but to the legal profession.

Many leaders of the bar were embarrassed to see the very lim­ited, almost nonexistent, role of the ABA in the great national, legal, and moral struggles that led to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. . . . It is always a great struggle to persuade an organization as vast as the ABA to establish a whole new unit. The intense reluctance of the ABA was even more intense when the agenda of the proposed section related to issues which many lawyers—at that time, and now—consider to be political issues beyond the concerns of the organized bar.

For a number of years, the Sec­tion debated whether to change its name. The suggestion stemmed from a concern that the Section’s name did not adequately convey its mission. Advocates for such a change also felt that membership would increase if the Section’s name more clearly described the focus of its activities. Proponents were ever mindful that a more appropriately descriptive name not diminish any recognition of the compromises that were deemed nec­essary to create this Section.

That the past is prologue to the future is clearly seen in Father Dri­nan’s observations about the Section’s name 25 years ago:

The name ‘Section of Individ­ual Rights’ was chosen to avoid the anticipated resistance to the use of ‘civil rights.’ The term ‘Responsibilities’ was added on the floor of the House and was agreed to by the sponsors sim­ply to avoid controversy and to ease the birth of the sec­tion. The name—the Section of Individual Rights and Respon­sibilities—has always been awkward and even something of a misnomer. But efforts through the years to change it to the more descriptive and accurate Section of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties have been set aside.

Father Drinan’s hope that the name would change to something more descriptive of its work finally came to fruition as the Section entered its 50th year. At the 2015 ABA House of Delegates meeting, the House approved the Section’s new name: the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice. That the new name was adopted without opposition says a great deal about the culture of today’s ABA compared to 50 years ago.

The voices of the past also remind us of the importance of this Section’s role—in the past, today, and in the future. As we chart our course for the next 50 years, consider this:

I am concerned about the future of civil liberties and civil rights. . . . I think it is clear that the federal courts, from the Supreme Court on down, will no longer be the vigorous protec­tor of First Amendment liberties and rights of minorities. And while the courts back away from such vigorous protection, the Congress is under increasing public pressure to whittle down civil rights legislation.

Consider, as well, this sobering thought:

Recent national and interna­tional developments underscore the need for greater public understanding about the law. . . . Think about the significance of opinion polls showing that a majority of Americans are will­ing to suspend some of their constitutional protections to fight the ‘war’ on drugs. As Justice Brandeis said, ‘The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidi­ous encroachment by men of zeal—well-meaning but without understanding.’

The first quote was from former Section chairperson Sara-Ann Deter­man; the second from former ABA president John J. Curtin Jr. Both quotes are 25 years old, but they could as easily have been said today.

Throughout the 25th anniversary edition of Human Rights maga­zine, the words “Remember Why You Became a Lawyer” were writ­ten above each article focusing on the Section’s history. Father Drinan’s reminiscences about what the Section had accomplished in its first 25 years was aptly titled: “The Conscience of the ABA.” Both these phrases continue to resonate with meaning and should guide the Section as it charts its course for the future.

But the words of the Sec­tion’s former leaders also provide a cautionary note. Their state­ments echo with familiarity and their struggles serve as a force­ful reminder of the special role of lawyers in a free society. Father Drinan’s words should continue to call us to action:

Civil rights and civil lib­erties are in danger in this country today just as they were 25 years ago; indeed, there are perils today that were hardly thought of at that time. In fact, there is a need to expand the very concept of civil rights so that it embraces economic rights. How can persons be expected to enjoy the lib­erties of the Bill of Rights if they are denied the very basic rights of decent employment and housing?

Events in our country and throughout the world demonstrate daily the importance of the work we are called to do. Members of the ABA must demonstrate stal­wart vigilance in defense of our constitutional rights, democratic ideals, and the justice system. Doing so through the work of the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice is both a privilege and a necessity.

Lauren Stiller Rikleen

Lauren Stiller Rikleen, chair of the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, is president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership and the author of You Raised Us, Now Work With Us: Millennials, Careeer Success, and Building Strong Workplace Teams, published by the ABA imprint, Ankerwycke.