The Boston Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law: The First Fifty Years
Massachusetts Law Review, Vol. 101, No. 3, June 2020
8 Pages Posted: 19 Aug 2020
Date Written: June 1, 2020
Massachusetts lawyers have a long tradition of pro bono public service and commitment to the greater good of our society. So, it is no surprise that John F. Kennedy, a president steeped in Massachusetts history, reached out to the practicing bar to involve it in what he saw as a moral and legal crisis “as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American constitution.” In 1963, only months before his assassination, President Kennedy convened a meeting of 244 of the nation’s leading lawyers at the White House, seeking their active participation in the protection of civil rights under the law. At the time, defiant southern governors were blocking the entry of black students to state universities, sheriffs were brutally putting down nonviolent protests with howling police dogs and firehoses, black churches were being bombed, and Freedom Riders were suffering pitiless beatings. In response to President Kennedy’s call to action, the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights was formed later that same year with the aim of activating the pro bono resources of the private bar in the struggle for racial equality and justice.
A distinguished group of Boston lawyers answered the call when they created the first local affiliate of the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in 1968, with funding from the Ford Foundation and the city’s major law firms. In 1973, the Boston affiliate secured the sponsorship of the Boston Bar Association (BBA), and became the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the Boston Bar Association (LCCR, Lawyers’ Committee or Committee). The founding year of the Boston LCCR was one of the most tumultuous and consequential in the history of the American Republic. In February 1968, the Kerner Commission (the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders) issued its report concluding famously that the nation was fast becoming two Americas — “one black, one white — separate and unequal.” The struggle for civil rights and equal justice was, the report documented, in no way limited to the South. President Kennedy’s vision of enlisting a mobilized private bar to join the fight for equal justice had come home to Massachusetts, and there was plenty of work to be done here, as even a brief review of the Boston Committee’s activities over the past 50 years amply demonstrates.
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