It was standing room only in the East Room of the White House. The passionate roar of conversations and the clink of forks filled the room. Then, a calm and burst of cheers and applause as the President strode onto the platform.
It was the 50th Anniversary of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, being saluted in a special White House reception by President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder. Shoulder to shoulder, civil rights lawyers, LCCR staff, board members and supporters from across the country stood in the same room where President John F. Kennedy and then Attorney General Robert Kennedy first met with 244 lawyers, first establishing the committee amidst the civil rights battles in the summer of 1963.
With that historic backdrop and amidst major new civil rights issues a half century later, the guests in the packed room anticipated what this President would say in the August 1 reception.
“In this very room, President Kennedy brought together some of our nation’s top lawyers fifty years ago hoping to enlist them in the fight to make society more just,” he said. “Looking back, it is clear why President Kennedy, during one of the most turbulent times in our history, turned to this profession. He knew that the prize of equality would not be won only in the streets. But, it also had to be won in the courts and the state legislatures and in Congress. And he knew that in order to protect fair and equal access to justice, we needed to do more than just change minds, we also had to change laws.”
It’s been only eight months since the presidential election in which the Lawyers’ Committee and others fought major court battles against new voting laws that would have undermined the Black vote. And with the recent Supreme Court ruling that effectively gutted the pre-clearance mandate of the Voting Rights Act, plus new concerns about racial profiling and stand-your-ground laws, civil rights lawyers are as passionate as ever. A lawyer himself, President Obama acknowledged the challenging road ahead.
“From the Civil Rights Act, to the Fair Housing Act, to the Voting Rights Act, time and again, you have put your hands on the arch of history and bent it a little bit in the direction of justice. As Eric mentioned, we gather here today mindfully that our work is not yet done. There are basic rights like the right to vote that still have to be protected. There are too many Americans who are still facing discrimination,” he said. “As we mark this anniversary, it’s important to note that the civil rights movement wasn’t just about racial equality. It was also about jobs, economic justice; the civil rights movement was about equal access to the courts, the full protection of our Constitution. Those are all things that continue to challenge us today. And the good news is that we have an organization like this that is able to mobilize and galvanize leadership from all across the country.”
These were words of revival coming from America’s first Black President, who only weeks ago candidly discussed the pain of racial profiling in America. At that time, he was opining on the reactions to the “not-guilty” verdict in the George Zimmerman second degree murder trial. Though less personal in his reception remarks, he was just as pointed.
“I’m confident that you will, like Eric and me and others, want to continue to make the law work for all and I want to thank you for what this organization has accomplished and I look forward to watching you accomplish even more and stand alongside you every step of the way.”
Lauded by the President as having been among the original group convened by President Kennedy, a beaming U. S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Robert Mucklestone, a Seattle attorney who is now a Lawyers’ Committee trustee, were especially proud of how the organization has remained strong.
“It’s amazing what the Committee does now,” said Mucklestone in a brief interview. “It’s gone way beyond what was envisioned at the beginning. They’ve gotten very, very talented people and of course Barbara does a spectacular job,” he said, referring to LCCR Executive Barbara Arnwine, who has led the organization for 30 years.
Congressman Conyers, whose string of hallmark bills since his 1965 election, include the “End Racial Profiling Act” stressed the importance of the Lawyers’ Committee for the past and the future. “What I want to see them do now is continue what they’ve been doing for these fifty years. To be invited to the White House by the President. These lawyers from all over the country, singled out for their civil rights work, is an honor that none of them will ever forget.”
Other guests include civil rights royalty such as the SCLC Vice President Rev. C. T. Vivian, a lieutenant of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; former Md. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the daughter of the late Sen. Robert Kennedy; and Va. Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, the first Black mayor of Richmond, Va., who once shared a law firm with the late Oliver W. Hill, one of the attorneys representing plaintiffs in Brown vs. Board of Education that ended the “separate but equal” doctrine.
In opening remarks, Arnwine focused mainly on the visionary work of the Lawyers’ Committee.
“We, the board, staff and supporters of the great ‘Kennedy Vision’ that emanated from this room 50 years ago recognize the remaining immense challenge of achieving inclusion, racial justice and opportunity for all Americans,” she said. “The overt and subtle racial discrimination and racial disparities of our time requires that the private bar brings the best of our talent and dedication to dismantling these barriers and combatting discrimination in any and all forms. It is our duty and responsibility as lawyers to build the bridges that will transition our nation to a powerful model for the world of racial, ethnic and gender equality, inclusion for all people, and economic and political justice.”
The White House reception culminated a string of events celebrating the organization’s 50th Anniversary this year under the mantra, “Moving America Toward Justice.” The anniversary coincides with the 50th anniversary of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” coming up August 28.
“The East Wing of this White House is hallowed ground to the Lawyers’ Committee,” said Jane Sherburne, a Lawyers’ Committee co-chair, told the crowd. “We were founded in this room fifty years ago at a time when our profession had not yet consciously recognized a role, much less an obligation, to defend the rights of Black Americans in a harshly segregated society,” she said. “Mr. President, we have not stopped since…Last year, under the leadership of the lawyers in this room, we contributed more than 90,000 hours of legal services valued at 47 million dollars in support of Lawyers’ Committee work.”
Helping to recognize the work was Eric Holder, who just last week announced that he will pursue federal court permission to force Texas to “pre-clear” its new voting laws.
“Despite everything that the Lawyers’ Committee and so many others have accomplished over the last half century, there is no doubt that our journey as a nation and as a people are far from over. So our important work must go on,” he said. “I can assure you that this administration, this President and this Justice Department are firmly committed to using every tool at our disposal to continue to ensure that the civil rights and the voting rights of all Americans are protected.”