(Editor’s note: The ‘State of Equality and Justice in America’ is part of a 20-part series of columns written by an all-star list of contributors to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.)
Fighting for social and racial justice is the enduring component of the civil right movements. In the tumultuous 1960s many great leaders emerged, dedicating their lives to moving America toward justice. Iconic civil rights activist, Medgar Evers made tremendous efforts in fighting for positive change and social justice. June 12 marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Evers. Though only 37 at the time of his death, he had become a key civil rights leader who worked diligently to secure equal rights in the state of Mississippi.
It is vital to ensure that his work and legacy does not become blurred with other historical events. We must continue to teach younger generations of activists how we have been afforded certain rights, including voting rights, because of the bitter sacrifices of heroes and ‘sheroes’ like Evers. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law extends its deepest appreciation for Mr. Evers’ courageous life and civil rights legacy.
Among my ‘sheroes’ is Evers’ widow Myrlie Evers-Williams, who has valiantly upheld their shared ideals since his murder. The Lawyers’ Committee fully supports Myrlie’s efforts to build a memorial for her late husband at Alcon State University in Mississippi. More information about the memorial is available at www.mememorial.org
After becoming the first field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi, Medgar Evers organized and participated in voter registration efforts, demonstrations, and economic boycotts of companies that practiced discrimination. He also worked to investigate crimes perpetrated against African Americans. Evers’ many contributions to the civil rights movement, along with his untimely death, were both factors in the creation of the national Lawyers’ Committee, which I have been honored to lead for the last 24 years.
In the summer of 1963 demands for racial justice were increasingly being met with lawless intimidation and violence, and immediate action was needed. On June 11, President John F. Kennedy gave a nationally televised speech on civil rights stating that “it is better to settle these matters in the courts than on the streets.” Tragically, only hours after Kennedy’s speech, Evers was assassinated by a member of the White Citizens’ Council.
Shortly after President Kennedy heard the news of Evers’s assassination, he called for the best and the brightest attorneys in the nation to attend a historic meeting at the White House and urged them to defend the rule of law and the rights of civil rights demonstrators. Within a week, the Lawyers’ Committee was formed to obtain equal opportunity for minorities by leveraging the pro bono resources of the private bar to address legal factors that contribute to racial justice.
Today the Lawyers’ Committee and our partners remain vigilant on civil rights issues. We are currently fighting for stronger tenant laws in New Orleans, providing a voice for those who may not know how to speak up for their own fair housing rights. In addition, we are fighting to protect voters from voter suppression laws. We also strive to break the School to Prison Pipeline (STPP) through helping students who have fallen subject to the juvenile justice systems reenter into school to complete their education and educating teachers and parents on STPP issues.
In our efforts to uphold the legacies of civil rights activists, and encourage new activists to emerge, we have also implemented the Young Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights initiative. The goal of this initiative is to encourage lawyers in the first 10 years of their career who are interested or actively engaged in the work of the Lawyers’ Committee to join us in the fight. With our Young Lawyers Initiative, we are assisting the next generation to answer the call to action and become more knowledgeable about pressing racial and social justice issues by getting involved and connected with the civil rights issues nationally.
Leaders like Medgar Evers blazed a trail for generations to come; it is now up to us to continue fighting for justice. Let not the work of Mr. Evers be done in vain, but let it be a reminder of how far the civil rights movement has come and how much work remains.
For more information on the Lawyers’ Committee’s 50th anniversary, visit www.lawyerscommittee.org or www.towardjusticecampaign.org. For more information about the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute, visit www.eversinstitute.org
Barbara R. Arnwine is president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The Lawyers’ Committee is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to enlist the private bar’s leadership and resources in combating racial discrimination and the resulting inequality of opportunity—work that continues to be vital today. Jaila Carter, a psychology major at Howard University and intern for the Lawyers’ Committee, contributed to this editorial.