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April 01, 2000

Lawyers: Righters of Old Wrongs - Human Rights Magazine, Spring 2000

Lawyers: Righters of Old Wrongs

By William F. Winter

Editor's Note: The text of this article was excerpted from a speech presented by William F. Winter at the 1999 Thurgood Marshall Award Dinner honoring Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

I remember that black night in June 1963, in my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, when Medgar Evers was gunned down in the driveway of his home. It is the height of irony that his murder occurred the same evening on which President John F. Kennedy had addressed the nation to challenge the American people to support the rule of law. Evers's assassination was a shockingly defiant response by a white racist to that appeal. Kennedy had said in his address, "The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated."

It is significant that President Kennedy's next action was to turn to the one group in America whom he believed best understood how to overcome that kind of defiance of the law. Just ten days later, on June 21, 1963, he called 233 of this country's leading lawyers to a meeting at the White House and charged them with taking the lead in eliminating racial intolerance and injustice. That meeting led to the founding of the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which has done so much good work down through the years. But it is an indictment of our profession that only a small number of lawyers chose to respond to that call and get involved in that cause; there were too many lawyers, particularly in the South, who stood defiantly in opposition.

Recently, I found in my files an article I had clipped from a Memphis newspaper in 1965, about the failure of our profession at that time to assert its leadership in the advancement of civil rights. In it, Dean Erwin Griswold, of Harvard Law School and a member of the Commission on Civil Rights, quoted the then-president of the ABA: "The difficulties arise not because of doubts about the law . . . but because of persistent failure to . . . administer the law fairly and without discrimination . . . . Most of the members of the Bar in the South have been complacent about these things. Some have been concerned but have felt that they could not speak up, a sad commentary on the situation."

Well, that was then and this is now. And even though many things have changed, our obligation to stand for fairness and justice has not changed. If anything, it has increased. The old blatant, visible, odious forms of segregation and discrimination may no longer exist, but there is plenty left to do before we attain the truly just and equitable society that so many have struggled so valiantly to achieve. There is a lot of unfinished business, and we lawyers must get more involved in that business.

It is even more important today to create a racially united America. The world has gotten much smaller and our nation more racially diverse. This country is now the most diverse democracy in the world.

It is obvious that our capacity to exist as a great nation will depend on how well we learn to live together and be united by shared values. A beginning point in this process may be a simple recognition that we do not and probably cannot see many issues from the same perspective. How far we think we have come in race relations depends largely on where we stand. Most white people think we have come farther than most people of other races think we have.

What I believe we can agree on and unite behind is the proposition that racial prejudice and racist speech and action must be considered outside the bounds of acceptable conduct in our society; that the elimination of the remaining areas of racial injustice must be a matter of individual commitment as well as national priority; and that we must work to improve and eliminate the social, educational, and economic conditions that contribute to unequal opportunities. A democratic society cannot leave these problems to be solved by blind chance or individual impulse. We must work at it together. There must be a shared vision that recognizes our mutual interdependence, and advancing and clarifying that vision must be our common purpose. It is a vision that must be transmitted to all Americans-to our young people in particular-and we lawyers must be major transmitters of that vision.

This responsibility was acknowledged in a recent meeting of 200 leaders of the bar called together by President Clinton to complete the unfinished task of eliminating racial injustice in our nation. Clinton, like President Kennedy in 1963, has again turned to lawyers to right the old wrongs. It is obvious that there is still much to do, and if the members of the legal profession don't take the lead, the task of finally uniting our country is not going to get done. We must start in our own ranks.

As Bill McBride of Tampa, Florida, a member of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and managing partner of the firm of Holland and Knight, pointed out in the president's meeting, the 100 largest U.S. law firms had more than 46,000 lawyers with aggregate revenues of $24 billion; yet less than 2 percent of the partners in those firms are minorities. With some notable exceptions, that indictment extends to thousands more of our colleagues.

A major problem is that the current minority hiring pool is too small. Law schools must attract and graduate more minority students, and we cannot remain blind to this age-old problem. As McBride pointed out to the president, you cannot argue that fairness dictates that you give two climbers the same weight to carry or the same tests to pass when one is already halfway up the mountain and the other still at the bottom. It is our duty to do whatever we can to equip students at the elementary and high school levels to get further up the mountain.

And I would insist that it is not just for the benefit of would-be students that we do this. As Derek Bok and William Bowen point out in their book, The Shape of the River, the true enrichment of our society and our profession can be achieved only by admitting to its full membership the whole array of the human family that our country now represents. There must be a recognition that the ultimate challenge lies in the educational and economic advancement of people we have left behind. We must get the message out to every household-especially every disadvantaged household-that the only road out of poverty runs by the schoolhouse. Discrimination is not limited to race. The line that separates the well educated from the poorly educated is the harshest fault line of all. This is where we must increasingly concentrate our efforts.

And I believe that we have to start by eliminating or at least improving the social and living conditions that contribute to poor learning. Because we know that so much mental development takes place at a very early age, we are going to have to step up our early childhood education efforts and reach more of the kids from have-not households while there is still time. Too many children, especially minorities and poor whites, find themselves in schools or classes that do not provide them with the skills they need to compete at the college level or in the workplace. In five southern states, of which my State of Mississippi is one, fewer than half the public high schools offer even one advanced placement course. Students cannot compete at the college level if they are short-changed at the elementary and secondary level.

This means the colleges and universities that are committed to access as well as quality must get more involved in the sources that supply their students. Higher education has an increased responsibility to help provide the know-how, the resources, and the leadership to make elementary and secondary schools, especially the poorer schools, more effective. And our profession must be increasingly involved in this process.

I am aware of the long-standing commitments to this cause continuing to be made by many lawyers and the organizations that lawyers represent. I am also aware of our natural tendency to let up in our efforts to achieve the results we want because of the immense scope and complexity of the task. But this is not a mission for the faint-hearted or the short-winded. Now more than ever our continued unflagging commitment is required.

I am hopeful that the president's response to the recommendation of his Race Advisory Board headed by the distinguished Dr. John Hope Franklin, with whom I had the privilege of serving, will be to put in place a permanent Council on Racial Reconciliation that would provide continuity of official national support. I see this as a basis for a massive educational effort that would use all of the elements of civil society to remove once and for all the horrible face of racism from our midst. That will obviously mean a major role for the legal profession. I hope that we will embrace that challenge.

The unmatched array of resources represented by the American Bar Association must be increasingly committed to completing the essential task of building a unified country based on respect for the freedom and dignity of every single person. That is a commitment that is inherent in the oath that every lawyer has taken and has a duty to uphold. We must live up to our oath. If we do not step forward as lawyers and act to oppose racism, injustice, and bigotry whenever and however they may be expressed, we are not worthy to be members of the legal profession.

The only inheritance that really matters is the kind of society that we bequeath to our children and grandchildren. It must be an inheritance that combines a commitment to social and economic justice, the education and development of all of our people, and the recognition and celebration of our common humanity in an increasingly multicultural society. Let us acknowledge the debt that we owe, but let us remember how we can repay that debt. It is not enough that we express it in words or ceremonies. We can do it only by unflagging efforts in our hometowns, in the offices where we advise our clients, in the courthouses where we practice, and in the social gatherings, civic clubs, and community networks where so much opinion is shaped-in all of the relationships of our lives. That is how we can honor our legacy, to make our country truly and at long last one America.

William F. Winter is a partner at the law firm of Watkins, Ludlam, Winter & Stennis, P.A. Winter served as the Governor of Mississippi from 1980-1984.