Lawyers sometimes need a little inspiration. Sometimes we forget what “called us” to the bar. For me, it was initially Perry Mason, and then it was the ‘60s: protests, riots and conflict over turning our backs on some of the things our parents had taught us. Those were challenging times, when the U.S. Justice Department’s FBI was led by an odd fellow, J. Edgar Hoover. Sometimes it felt as though it was necessary to demonstrate for our civil rights and for free speech. Sometimes demonstrators ended up being shot. I remember Kent State and Jackson State. I can’t forget when Daniel Ellsberg risked life imprisonment to reveal secret government documents about the Vietnam War, and the group of Nixon’s “CIA-type” burglars trying to steal information belonging to the opposing party. I was in Washington, D.C. when Ralph Nader’s team of “raiders” worked for almost nothing to expose wrongs. His book, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” shook the auto industry and corporate America in general. I was in Washington when the SDS Weathermen took laws into their own hands. I was in Washington when secret American bombings in Southeast Asia were exposed by the senator for whom I worked, and when he was told that was a treasonous act. Those exciting and difficult times led me to the bar. Law school, however, has a way of directing would-be civil rights champions towards “accomplishments” such as fancy jobs in big firms, working for fancy people in big companies.
I was in Washington on the day Martin Luther King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. He had gone there to fight for striking sanitation workers whose grievances included unfair working conditions and poor pay. That evening, as smoke rose up into the Washington sky in response to the assassination, I took off from National Airport to go home for spring break. My girlfriend (and later lawyer-wife) stayed behind and sought shelter in the suburbs.
On this Martin Luther King Day, almost 50 years after the death of Dr. King, I found myself sitting next to former U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young, who was in town to speak about Martin Luther King and Young’s own lifelong fight for equal rights. Ambassador Young talked about his father, a man standing only 5 feet, 4 inches, who told the future civil rights leader about the importance of not losing his temper in conflict situations. Young, who witnessed Dr. King lying in his own blood on that Memphis balcony, later became a Congressman and a two-term mayor of Atlanta. He told those of us who had come to the King Day celebration that his dad had explained that because his dad was 5 feet, 4 inches tall, Andy likely would grow no taller than 5 feet, 8 inches — and wasn’t going to be able to beat up people whos opinions differed from his. His father also told him: “Although you might be able to outrun some of them, I don’t want you running away from anybody.” Instead, he counseled his son to use his wits and convictions to express his views calmly and with intelligence. Young also spoke of the time when Dr. King and the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, King’s successor as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had been incarcerated in a Georgia jail. A police sergeant was at the desk when Young walked in and asked to speak with Dr. King and Rev. Abernathy. The sergeant, without looking up, yelled: “There’s a little [n—–] out here who wants to talk to the two big [n——].” Young told us that after he finally got in and told Dr. King about the sergeant’s attitude, Dr. King admonished him, saying: “Well, you need to find a way to get in here every day so I can get information from the outside and give you directions.” Young relied upon the teachings of his father to get that done. On the way out of the police station on that first day, he approached the sergeant and said, “I want to thank you, sergeant, for being kind enough to let me in to speak with Dr. King.” The next day, Young walked into the station and said, “Sergeant, you are such a big man. You must have played football here in Georgia.” The two men talked about that and other personal things before Young asked if the sergeant minded letting him in once again to speak with the prisoners. “Sure. Go right in,” the sergeant responded. Every day thereafter, Young talked to the sergeant about things that would interest him.
Young also said that he had been unimpressed with then-Gov. Jimmy Carter’s civil rights record but that Coretta King convinced him that he needed to stand beside Carter. He told the gathering that eventually President Carter appointed him as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. At the time of his appointment, Young had some campaign debt. A supporter advised him to retire that debt so it could not be used to suggest bias in his role at the United Nations. The supporter promised to arrange for Young to speak at a fundraiser in Maine, which would be attended by well-off people who could help him to raise enough money to retire his debt. Young agreed and gave the speech.
Afterwards, a tall man — wearing what Young described as starched white pants and a green jacket that looked as though the man had just come from the Augusta National Golf Club — walked up and complimented Young on his talk. “You don’t know who I am, do you?” the man asked. Young admitted he did not. The police sergeant from the Georgia jail re-introduced himself, now as a member of the security force at the club where Young had spoken. The sergeant said he had been so moved by what he had learned from his conversations and interactions with Young and the incarcerated Dr. King that he’d made what he called the best decision of his life: relocating to Maine to get his children away from what he described as an environment of hate. His family had thrived in Maine, the sergeant said, and his children had gone on to attend college and lead successful lives. Young said that story took him by surprise and moved him, demonstrating that we never really know the results of our words or actions.
Young then said he understood that students from a girls’ middle school were present in the auditorium; he asked the school to send up two representatives. As the girls walked up, Young asked: “I’m 86 years old, and I’ve been getting these types of recognitions for 50 years. What do you do with these things? Here’s what I do with them.” He presented the girls with the engraved glass obelisk and plaque he’d received, with these instructions: “Take these recognitions to your school and find an appropriate spot to display them, as a reminder that the quest for equal justice and equal opportunity and the battle to clothe the naked and feed the hungry is not a day-long or a year-long battle, but that it is a lifelong commitment.” The girls gave Young a kiss on the cheek and walked away, beaming, with the school’s new reminders.
It was a sad weekend, recalling the death of Dr. King, and it was also a hopeful weekend thinking about the message of Andrew Young. Over all, the King Day celebration was a valuable reminder that, as Young paraphrased, the arc of justice is long and over time bends towards more rights for people.
Whatever path we took to the law, we know it is an honor to be a lawyer and fight for the rights of our clients — in the fields of civil and individual rights, and in battles that have nothing to do with either. The profession provides the opportunity to build a really good life for ourselves and our families, but with that comes important responsibilities to use our experiences and skills to do the right thing. Few lawyers will find themselves in the role of a civil rights leader such as Ambassador Young, but none of us has to look very far to find opportunities to make this world a little better. Once in a while we just need a reminder.
2018 Under Analysis, LLC. Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column of the Levison Group. Mark Levison is a member of the law firm Lashly & Baer, P.C. Contact Under Analysis by e-mail at email@example.com