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Martin Luther King Lawyers Speak at Law School

Symposium speakers share experiences defending civil rights leader, fighting Jim Crow

CHICAGO --- Martin Luther King Jr. had more than 60 lawyers in his short career, referring to himself at one point as a “notorious litigant and frequenter of jails.”

Fewer than 15 of King’s lawyers are alive today, yet five of them came together at an unprecedented event for Northwestern University School of Law’s Journal of Law and Social Policy’s (JLSP) eighth annual symposium, “Martin Luther King’s Lawyers: From Montgomery to the March on Washington to Memphis.” The Oct. 31 symposium brought together scholars and attorneys who represented the civil rights leader during major phases of his activism.

“This symposium is truly exceptional, as these individuals who represented Dr. King in nearly every one of his major movements have never before gathered together to discuss their experiences,” said Kimberly Seymour, JLSP symposium chair and a JD-LLM program student, prior to the event.

Len Rubinowitz, professor of law at Northwestern and faculty advisor to the JLSP who has been working on an article about King’s lawyers during the last year, proposed the topic for the annual symposium.

The symposium will be featured in an issue of the Journal of Law and Social Policy expected to be published later this year. The feature will include a transcript of the day’s discussion and Rubinowitz’s article on King’s lawyers.

Northwestern features highlights from the fall symposium in honor of the university’s 2015 commemoration of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

A New Kind of Lawyering

Aldon Morris, the Leon Forrest Professor of Sociology and African American studies at Northwestern, wrote the seminal book “The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change” almost 30 years ago. Morris opened up the symposium by giving a powerful overview of King’s career and the civil rights movement, providing important context for the rest of the day.

“Underneath all of King’s deeply held beliefs of racial brotherhood, the need for reconciliation, turning the other cheek and loving thy enemies, was his shrewd understanding that the movement had to disrupt Jim Crow in order to overthrow it,” Morris said. “He came to understand that it was disruptive mass demonstrations that created the fire to burn down Jim Crow.”

During the civil rights movement, King, along with many lawyers, used knowledge of the law “to disrupt the system,” but they were also asked to chart new legal strategies to address novel situations.

“The irony was that laws undermining justice had to be broken for laws of racial justice to prevail,” Morris said. “But the great task of that day concerned how the lawbreakers would be handled by the legal system.”

The “stunning” legal victories achieved by the NAACP challenging racist policies established lawyers as the leaders of social change during the Jim Crow era, Morris said, thereby challenging the role of traditional lawyers.

And while conventional lawyers were still needed, Morris said others combined conventional lawyering with movement lawyering, demonstrating that if the tension between social change movements and the law is managed creatively, lawyers could be creative agents of social change.

Clayborne Carson, the Martin Luther King Jr. Centennial Professor of History and founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, said that in studying King it became clear that he needed lawyers -- and not just for incidents of civil disobedience and movement activity.

“He needed lawyers because often the courts are used as a pretext to stop leaders using other kinds of laws that have nothing to do with civil rights protests,” said Carson, who is considered to be the preeminent King scholar. “And certainly this was the case with Martin Luther King who was arrested for driving without a license, tax evasion -- and many other activities that had very little to do with his movement activities but, nonetheless, were attacks on his movement activities.”

Carson also discussed the role of a movement lawyer in the 1960s and the tension that came with being “a part of the system” but also understanding the goals of the movement.

“I would definitely endorse this notion that to be a civil rights lawyer requires a new kind of lawyering,” Carson said. “There is this tension between a movement that is designed to deal with the injustices inherent in the system and the point that Jim Crow was legal that would lead us to suspect that maybe there might be things that are very legal today that are nonetheless unjust.

“And lawyering has to be about not simply dealing with people who run afoul of the law through disrupting the system, but using the law and using the skills of a lawyer to disrupt the system. And that’s a very difficult thing to do sometimes.”

Operating Behind the Scenes

Morris told the audience that great leaders do not succeed merely because of their individual gifts but also because they assemble a leadership team of diverse people who possess the skills and talents needed to do social change work, quoting community organizer Marshall Ganz.

“It is important to learn from King’s lawyers because they constituted a crucial dimension of King’s leadership team as did organizers and experts on nonviolence, clergy, war veterans, student leaders, labor leaders and so on,” he said.

Attorney Fred Gray of Alabama, a behind-the-scenes force of the leadership team, was unable to attend the symposium.

In his absence, Darlene Clark Hine, Board of Trustees Professor of African American studies and professor of history at Northwestern, was joined by Jonathan Entin, ’81 JD, associate dean for academic affairs and professor of political science at Case Western Reserve Law School, to discuss Gray and his legacy.

Gray, who is 83 years old and still practicing law in Alabama, was practically the only black lawyer in Montgomery in the 1950s and therefore essentially involved in every major civil rights case in the state.

He served as King’s first civil rights lawyer and represented Rosa Parks after her historic refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus. Gray was also present in the meeting when it was decided that King was going to be the face of the civil rights movement.

A native of Alabama, Gray had a passion for fighting the system that he grew up with, Entin said. Because of Jim Crow laws, he was unable to attend law school in Alabama and attended what is now Case Western Reserve Law School in Ohio. It was there that he pledged to return to his home state “to destroy everything segregated I could find.”

And for 30 years he was tenacious in his fight to destroy the state’s unjust laws, from Browder v. Gayle, which integrated the buses in the city of Montgomery in 1956, to Gomillion v. Lightfoot in 1960, which returned African-Americans to the city limits of Tuskegee, Alabama.

Many of the white leaders in the state considered Gray to be an obstructionist, even though he largely operated behind the scenes and was careful not to be seen as coaching resisters in the movement.

It was his patience and ability to work with all parties that made him particularly effective as a lawyer, Entin said.

Gray’s name may not dominate the history books but it is not a reflection of his extensive contributions to civil rights, according to Hine and Entin who have been in touch with Gray over the years.

Hine said Gray’s contributions to the movement deserve much more appreciation, scrutiny and inclusion in the historical record than he has received. 

“He’s worthy of study for several reasons,” Hine said. “First and foremost, his desire to make life better for everybody. Secondly, the determination to use all of his physical, intellectual and mental resources to acquire the training and the skills -- to not only make life better for him and his own family, but to change the course of history towards righteousness.”

A Pioneering Spirit

Horace Ward, another member of King’s legal team, is a 1959 graduate of Northwestern’s law school.

Ward told the audience that by the time he arrived in Chicago to attend law school in the mid 1950s, he was no stranger to the fight for racial equality.

A native of Georgia, he was the first African-American to apply to the University of Georgia (UGA) School of Law, albeit unsuccessfully, thereby challenging its racially discriminatory practices. His application was denied, and his lawsuit against UGA was ultimately lost.

Prior to working on one of King’s legal teams, Ward was already familiar with the young civil rights leader as the two were students at the Atlanta-based Morehouse College.

While at Morehouse, Ward said people knew King was a good speaker, but nobody anticipated that he was going to be the preeminent civil rights activist that he turned out to be. Ironically, “M.L.,” as King was called in college, usually came in second, not first, in debate competitions, Ward recalled.

In 1960, Ward was part of a legal team that won a victory in the Georgia Court of Appeals, which secured the release of King from the Georgia State Prison after he had been arrested during a sit-in demonstration.

Ward went on to have a distinguished legal career. He assisted Georgia attorneys in their renewed efforts to desegregate UGA. In 1961, a judge ordered UGA to admit its first two black students in its 175-year history -- Hamilton E. Holmes and Charlayne A. Hunter.

Furthermore, Ward served in the Georgia State Senate and in 1979 became the first African-American federal judge in Georgia when President Jimmy Carter named him a judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

A Witness to History

The second half of the symposium included a presentation of rare color photographs of King during his demonstrations in Chicago by civil rights activist and professional photographer Bernard Kleina; a conversation with Gil Cornfield and Gil Feldman, attorneys who worked to combat substandard housing conditions during the Chicago Freedom Movement (1965 to 1966); and a presentation by W.J. Michael Cody of Burch, Porter & Johnson, King’s lawyer in Memphis.

A conversation with Clarence Jones, First Diversity Visiting Professor, University of San Francisco, political advisor, counsel and draft speechwriter for King, concluded the daylong event.

Jones, now 83, shared his memories of first meeting the then 31-year-old King in California in 1960. 

King told Jones that the civil rights movement had many white lawyers from the Midwest and North helping out but that it also needed young black lawyers like him.

Jones said that while he appreciated what King was trying to achieve he would be unable to help.

The following day, however, Jones attended a church in Los Angeles where King was scheduled to speak. The topic was “The role and responsibility of Negro professionals in helping our less fortunate brothers and sisters who are struggling for freedom in the South.”

“It was riveting… unbelievable, mesmerizing,” Jones recalled.

Furthermore, King had personalized part of his speech, referencing Jones and his life story directly (both of his parents were live-in domestics), while not mentioning him by name. Jones remembers being overcome with emotion.

“’When do you want me to go to Montgomery, Alabama?’” Jones asked King following the speech. “That’s what I call the making of a disciple.”

Jones assisted King and was by his side during historic moments. Unbeknownst to prison guards, Jones brought blank pieces of paper to King while in jail in what would become the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” A few months later he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with King as he delivered the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

During the speech, Jones realized that King had incorporated some of the language Jones drafted for him to consider.

But when gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who had just performed, said, “Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream,” Jones said King set aside his prepared notes.

“He started this extraordinary speech, which we know as the ‘I Have a Dream Speech,’ which was completely extemporaneous, completely spontaneous.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

Ironically, King never set out to be a civil rights leader, Carson said.

When King laid out his agenda as a minister in a paper in 1948, he mentioned slums, unemployment and economic security. He did not mention civil rights.

But he went on a detour because of Rosa Parks, Carson said. She turned him into a civil rights leader.

“He was drafted into the civil rights movement, and for 10 years I think all of us would agree he did a pretty good job at it,” Carson said. “He achieved a great deal of success, but the point I would make is that the day after the Voting Rights Act was passed, he was still at work. He did not retire. He did not move on and rest on the victory over Jim Crow.

“In some ways, the final three years of his life were the most meaningful ones in terms of his mission he lays out very early in his life. This dealing with these triple evils -- racial injustice, militarism and poverty -- he sees not only as American problems but global problems.”

These were the central concerns of his life before Rosa Parks and after the major objectives of the civil rights movement achieved in 1965.

King was seen as a person who was trying to achieve a broad range of goals on a global level, and his last book was “Where Do We Go From Here?” He understood that all the goals had not been achieved through civil rights reform, Carson said.

“We are still in that questioning period,” Carson said. “Where do we go from here?”

He said scholars are questioning the significance of those goals, such as civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander in her book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

“I think that’s our jobs as scholars to try to find out for the people in Ferguson [Missouri], for example, how do you define the oppressive forces that are still keeping you down? And how do lawyers become part of a mass struggle that is going to find answers to King’s question: ‘Where do we go from here?’”