Annual Meeting

Obama makes surprise virtual appearance at ABA Thurgood Marshall event honoring civil rights lawyer

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Former President Barack Obama spoke virtually at the 2021 ABA Hybrid Annual Meeting on Friday.

Former President Barack Obama made a surprise virtual appearance at the ABA Hybrid Annual Meeting on Friday evening to honor Thurgood Marshall Award winner Clarence B. Jones, a civil rights leader and member of Martin Luther King Jr.'s legal team.

Jones helped “bend the arc of history towards justice and freedom,” Obama said at the closing of the awards ceremony, sponsored by the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice.

Jones helped organize King’s 1963 March on Washington, helped write his “I have a Dream” speech, and took King’s hand-written notes from jail in what became known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” according to a press release announcing the award.

“When I was a young lawyer looking to make a difference, Dr. Jones was the ultimate inspiration,” Obama said. “He was an attorney, a writer, an activist. He did it all. During the civil rights movement, when those who were threatened by Dr. King tried to tarnish his reputation, it was Dr. Jones who joined a team of distinguished attorneys to fight back. When Dr. King was thrown in a jail cell in Birmingham, it was Dr. Jones who helped secure the money for his release. And as Dr. King prepared for the March on Washington, it was Dr. Jones who helped pen one of the most iconic speeches in history.”

Obama called Jones part of “a generation of giants” who “recognized that the odds were stacked against them but who pressed forward with courage, ingenuity and resilience.”

Obama said lawyers can honor Jones by playing a role in the fight for justice.

Too often, Obama said, the law “serves to regulate the affairs of the powerful instead of protecting the powerless.”

“But the law is also memory,” Obama said. “It records a long-running conversation, a nation arguing with its conscience. As lawyers, you can keep that conversation going, whether it’s about how to guarantee every American the right to vote or how to eliminate racial bias in our criminal justice system. And you can reach back to give the next generation of lawyers a hand up, especially those who might not have access to the same resources or support systems that you did.”

Angela Scott, chair of the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, introduced Jones, thanking him for reminding lawyers that we have to revisit our past and learn that we can continue to progress toward a society that truly represents justice for all.

Jones said he accepted the award in honor of all those who encouraged him to succeed and all those who worked to advance civil rights, including King.

He also expressed gratitude to the Black Lives Matter movement “for reminding our country that the minds and bodies of Black men and women are sacred and dear in need of protection against the use of excessive force.”

Follow along with the ABA Journal’s coverage of the 2021 ABA Hybrid Annual Meeting here.

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