This year, the American Bar Association’s (“ABA”) Section for Civil Rights and Social Justice (“CRSJ”) is celebrating its 50th anniversary. To commemorate this monumental milestone, CRSJ hosted a national event at the American University Washington College of Law on April 21, 2016. The event was a day-long celebration of not only how far the ABA, CRSJ, and the law have come in the past 50 years, but also a reflection on where our country and communities are headed socially and legally in the next 50 years.
To begin, the anniversary program had a luncheon keynote address from Dahlia Lithwick, Slate Senior Editor and Legal Correspondent. This was followed by a screening of the documentary, Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment. Crisis follows President John F. Kennedy, and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and their efforts towards desegregation in 1963. Specifically, the film examines the work of the Kennedys for the enrollment of two African- American students at the University of Alabama in spite of then Governor George Wallace’s ban. After the documentary, the attendees engaged in an interactive discussion regarding the role of the legal profession in civil rights, and the difficulties and successes the ABA and CRSJ have faced and overcome, as well as the on-going social justice and concerns which require the Bar and Section’s attention and involvement.
Finally, the national event concluded with an evening reception during which CRSJ presented its Civil Rights Hero Award to five recipients whose dedication to civil rights and social justice is truly exemplary:
- Mark D. Agrast, Executive Director and Executive President of the American Society for International Law and former Chair of CRSJ and Commissioner with the ABA Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (“SOGI”);
- U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Tom Perez;
- Marian Wright Edelman, President and Founder of the Childrens Defense Fund;
- Marcia Greenberger, Co-President of the National Womens Law Center; and,
- Karen K. Narasaki, Commissioner on the United States Commission on Civil Rights and past President of Asian American Advancing Justice.
CRSJ also presented the Civil Rights Hero Award to two posthumous recipients, Vivian Malone, one of the two first African-American students enrolled at and the first African-American student to graduate the University of Alabama, and Esther Lardent, Founder, President, and CEO of the Pro Bono Institute.
Without question, the 50th Anniversary of CRSJ is particularly poignant for the SOGI Commission. For example, the SOGI Committee of CRSJ was created in 1977. Then, in 2003, the CRSJ SOGI Committee won the CRSJ (then called the ABA Section for Individual Rights and Responsibilities) Committee Excellence Award for its outstanding work advancing civil rights.
Ultimately, in 2007, the SOGI Commission was created to secure equal treatment for all people in the ABA, the legal profession, and the justice system, without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity. Today, the SOGI Commission continues to enjoy a powerful working relationship with CRSJ and its SOGI Committee.
Still, notwithstanding the significant strides which have been made towards LGBT and SOGI equality in the past 50 years, many people at the CRSJ national event, including former and current leaders of CRSJ and the bar, spoke specifically to the difficulties endured during the past 50 years for LGBT and SOGI people. For instance, many attendees discussed examples of de facto and de jure discrimination towards attorneys, colleagues, and friends and family, who identify as LGBT and SOGI, in the law, in the community, and sometimes even in the organized bar. Yet, while the discussion recalled many troubling instances of harassment and prejudice, the conversation also revealed stories of transformation, stories of the power of conversation and education, and stories of unwavering dedication to equal justice and rights for all, sometimes from surprising sources.
In many ways, the work of SOGI is more important now than ever. Even in the past year, for all of the social and legal advancements and victories won, there have also been alarming steps taken and efforts made to silence and repress LGBT and SOGI communities, ranging from the introduction of harmful legislation intended to isolate LGBT and SOGI people to outright violence. The CRSJ 50th Anniversary celebration was a reminder that the foundation for the growth and success of a great movement, like that of LGBT and SOGI civil rights over the past 50 years, is often the result of many smaller hard fought battles and victories.
During his CRSJ Civil Rights Hero Award acceptance speech, U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Tom Perez emphasized that, “'We the People’ doesn’t have asterisks.” SOGI is dedicated to continuing the movement towards social and legal equality in the ABA, the legal profession, and the justice system, until “We the People” includes all the people in the LGBT and SOGI communities.