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A Call for Social Justice Lawyering

Hearkening back four decades to the civil rights movement, Harvard Law Professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr. is issuing a call for litigators to revive the passion for social justice that characterized that era. In " Social Justice Lawyering: The Rule and the Limits of Law," an article published by the American Bar Association Section of Litigation, Ogletree recalls the groundbreaking work of lawyers such as Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robinson as inspiration for lawyers today. In particular, he singles out Houston, after whom the Harvard-based foundation Ogletree directs is named, for having laid the legal and theoretical groundwork that paved the way for the civil rights movement and Brown v. Board of Education.

The groundwork of building theory, training litigators, and systematically bringing lesser known cases to build a legal record was often not the stuff of public glory and recognition. Often, it was tedious and slow. Sadly, Houston died of heart failure in 1950, four years before his most famous student, Thurgood Marshall, argued and won the Brown case. Nevertheless, the power of his mentorship and intellectually rigorous mind was evident in that every lawyer involved in the transformative Brown case had been taught, mentored, or encouraged by Houston in profound ways.

How far have we come these 40 years since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? "Blatantly racist laws are off the books, but the lingering effects of old laws and structural arrangements remain and have the same result -- unequal opportunity," Ogletree writes. "Personal racism no longer comes in the form of white southern sheriffs and governors blocking black children from schoolhouse doors. Rather, it has moved underground, so vaguely or passively expressed that it is utterly unassailable." But Ogletree finds hope in the belief that law and morality will always intersect, and he believes that it is from there that a new social justice movement can begin.

To be sure, the signature message from the work of Dr. King, Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and others, or lawyers today, is that creative arguments and a passion for justice are the key ingredients necessary for litigators to move us closer to a just and equal society. The opportunity to follow the lead of the great visionaries of the twentieth century is staring us in the face in the twenty first. It will require women and men of faith and commitment to lead this effort forward, learning the lessons of the past.

Plenty of passionate and committed lawyers remain active, of course, but Ogletree's piece is a reminder of the tedious groundwork that goes into the pursuit of social justice.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on July 18, 2008 at 12:47 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)


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