Why Leading Civil Rights Lawyer Advised Susan Rice Against Law School (Podcast with Transcript)
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Stephanie Francis Ward: This August will mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights March on Washington. Much has changed since then, but many say more needs to be done. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward and that’s what we’re discussing today on the ABA journal podcast.
Joining me are David Coar, a recently retired Northern District of Illinois judge and an Alabama native who in 1970 began his legal career with the NAACP legal defense and education fund; Julius Chambers, a North Carolina lawyer who over the years has argued and won numerous landmark Civil Rights cases; and Eleanor Holmes Norton, a lawyer and a Washington, D.C., congresswoman who was the first woman to head the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
How do you think your experience in being active in the civil rights movement–how has that helped you with your career later in life? Mr. Chambers, do you want to take that one first?
Julius Chambers: My involvement with civil rights efforts goes back a long way. I wanted to go to a major school in North Carolina and at that time they were not admitting black students. So I couldn’t go to the schools, largely because of my race. And I never got over it, and I looked at job possibilities after I finished school and I saw various things that prohibited me from getting a job. I also wanted to do some things that I just couldn’t do because I was black. So I had a personal interest in getting involved in civil rights, and I was excited that we were able to succeed with a lot of those efforts.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Judge Coar, how do you think your experiences with the civil rights movement helped your career later in life?
David Coar: I suppose I didn’t really have a sense of the responsibility of being an attorney until I started representing plaintiffs in civil rights cases. I remember a case where–a demonstration case where one of the demonstrators needed to get out of jail. The kids were going to jail and staying there, and one of the students’ fathers had a heart attack, and I had to go over to the courthouse to get her released. This was at the same time that a white defendant in a criminal case was having a hearing about an incident with one of the demonstrators, and the courthouse was crowded with his supporters. And I had been in the military and I thought I had heard every swear word in the world. And as I walked through the hall, I think I was called some new names, I hadn’t heard those before.
And it was not someplace I really relished being, and had it been just me I probably would have not gone, but I was a lawyer–I was the only lawyer there representing the demonstrators, and this was something that had to be done and so you put aside any personal fear that you had because that was your responsibility. That was your job. And I don’t think I really had an appreciation for that until that incident.
Stephanie Francis Ward: And Congresswoman, how about you?
Eleanor Holmes Norton: Well, I think all three of us, perhaps not coincidentally, were informed in our careers by living with racism and racial discrimination. And you certainly didn’t have to do that in order to be a civil rights lawyer and there were many civil rights lawyers who had not had that experience and were deeply committed and contributed immensely to the movement. But the three lawyers you’re talking to today had that experience.
In terms of informing my own career personally, I now represent the District of Columbia, which does not have the same rights as every other American citizen. So if I regarded myself as an underdog when I was in the civil rights movement, that was terrific preparation for representing a city who has had a crusade for more than 200 years to get full and equal rights. Rights that we now have in all the southern states and that are truncated here. So I would say when we were in the movement, we were–it was literally a movement against the odds. That was the best preparation I can think of for representing my hometown, the District of Columbia.
Stephanie Francis Ward: I’m also curious–and perhaps, Congresswoman, you can take this first–you all built, obviously, very impressive careers growing up in segregation. What sort of help and advice did you get from family and friends coming up that you think really, really benefited you in your personal quest to do what you wanted to do?
Eleanor Holmes Norton: Well, in my case, I was born and raised in the District of Columbia where there was great consciousness about civil rights, great resentment of segregation. Though I didn’t go to Howard, it is important to recognize the District for what it was. It was the city where there was Howard University, which is one of the leading African-American universities. There was a cadre of black intellectuals. There was a deep ferment, but no movement.
So in a real sense, growing up in this city, which is a little different from growing up in other southern cities and this is a city below the Mason-Dixon line as they say, a little different because there were not signs that said “White” and “Colored.” You could ride anywhere on the buses but the schools were segregated. The District was one of the Brown v. Board of Education set of cases. And the public accommodations were segregated and the segregation was done by the most powerful of entities: the Congress of the United States.
Growing up with racism–official racism from on high–with three commissioners appointed by the President in charge of the city, with no home rule, no right to vote for a mayor or a city council, no local democracy, no right to vote for President, there was a real consciousness in the black community in the District of Columbia, but this is not where the civil rights began. It began where the outward and visible signs of discrimination were in your face every day.
Stephanie Francis Ward: And Judge Coar, being an Alabama native, perhaps you’d like to take the question next. I mean, can you tell me what sort of advice and guidance did you get in dealing with segregation?
David Coar: I remember when I was younger than 10 driving past the state fairgrounds and the state fairgrounds had Ferris wheels and carousels and all those things, and there was no equivalent black facility. And I was in a car with my mother, my father and my younger sister and brother, and I think my sister said, “I wanna go there. Why don’t we stop and go there?”
And I remember this look that my father gave my mother at the time, because it was a conversation that every black parent had to have with their children, that there are some things that are forbidden to you. And I’ll never forget that look. But my parents believed that–and they taught us–that education was the answer to just about every question.
I grew up in Alabama in the ‘50s. I finished elementary and high school–I finished high school in 1960. I think people understood that segregation was going to fall, and they were optimistic as to what the results of that would be. They didn’t quite know exactly what it would look like, but they knew that segregation was on its last legs. And so parents, teachers, ministers all taught pretty much the same thing, that there are going to be great opportunities out there for you, you just have to make sure that you’re prepared to accept them once they get here.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Mr. Chambers, what advice do you have for young black lawyers who would like a career like yours someday?
Julius Chambers: Well, there are different issues facing people today, and they’re not all racial, nor are they all gender-based and there are opportunities now like there were for me for people to get involved and provide assistance for people who were challenging the depravation of their rights because of race or color. We’ve made a lot of progress and I think that’s what this panel is telling you now, but there are still major issues facing minorities and women. And there’s a need for lawyers to become involved to provide assistance because a lot of people–they are begging for help.
I was telling a group of friends the other day that I was thinking back to the 1960s when a group of people came to visit me and wanted to bring a lawsuit to try to open up opportunities for blacks working with the major paper company in the eastern part of North Carolina. They didn’t have any money. They didn’t have any idea about how they should go about doing what they really wanted to do. And I must say that we lawyers also didn’t know, but we wanted to provide assistance and we ventured out and ended up with a case called Moody vs. Albemarle Paper Company and it really opened up employment opportunities for minorities in eastern North Carolina and really across the country.
There are similar opportunities today–not just with minorities, but with others who are being deprived. And I was recounting that early story because a group of people came to me more recently and asked for help, and I realized that they just didn’t have the resources they needed in order to protect their rights and opportunities. That’s true today not only in employment, but in education and in just about every other area that we faced in the 1960s. For the young lawyers today, there are a number of opportunities still there begging for assistance and if people step back and take a moment, they would appreciate quickly that they just got the resources they’re now to provide the legal assistance needed to protect rights and opportunities.
Stephanie Francis Ward: A slightly different topic, but I think it’s somewhat relevant–I’m also curious what the three of you think about the pending cases on how the government uses technology and surveillance? The government did a lot of that during the civil rights movement. Do any of you have thoughts on that you’d like to share?
David Coar: I think you have to always have to keep in mind that the reasons why we have a First Amendment in the first place, and that is to protect people’s right to express themselves and a right to organize. It was not unusual during the civil rights movement for there to be surveillance of demonstrators. Anybody who is a disliked minority runs the risk of being surveilled and punished for expressing those views, both in terms of their right to speak and their right to organize. So this is–we have to be mindful of the surveillance methods.
The war on drugs has created a perfect opportunity for the government to have an excuse to go in and spy on people. Then the war on terrorism, if you needed any more, provides an additional excuse. And for people who express political opinions, especially unpopular political opinions in this country, I think we have to be very mindful of the origins of the First Amendment and the need to keep the government in its proper place. That is not to suppress rightful expression.
Eleanor Holmes Norton: I certainly agree that these cases [inaudible] an entirely different context present great challenges for those of us who saw what government intrusion can do to a movement. This is very different, but we’re living already with the right to surveil without a warrant and without the other side even knowing what is going on since the so-called war on terrorism began and that has survived constitutional attack. So we’re already way away from where we were even 10 years–or at least before 9/11. The new technology is challenging all the old assumptions about what privacy is. And it is going to be a great challenge for the court to somehow understand that–that this is a different period and at the same time protect rights which have never had this kind of challenge before.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Congresswoman, I’m curious what you think about the issue of–it seems like–well, it doesn’t seem like–clearly law school tuition is rising a lot. The job market is not great. What do you think those two things will mean for diversity in the legal profession?
Eleanor Holmes Norton: My views on this may not be in keeping with my colleagues where I still teach a course–and I retained my tenure at Georgetown University Law School by teaching one course there every year–where students pay a lifetime by the time they graduate and they’re from a law school where more of them have a chance at getting a job than perhaps the average lawyer.
I just hope that in this generation of bright, young people, they look beyond the traditional professions. When immigrants came to this country and perhaps in the second generation they became doctors and lawyers and that’s what everyone wanted to be. Well, blacks just got the opportunity to become doctors and lawyers in any fair number with the civil rights movement.
As much as I welcome young people into the practice of law, it does seem to me that lawyers have to be very, very careful about simply saying to people, “Yeah, why don’t you go to law school like me,” knowing what rising tuition means. And I think law schools need to be hammered on continuously raising tuition and knowing what the job market is likely to be. And I’m not talking about the present recession. I am talking about the changes–and my colleagues can talk about this better than I can, but changes in the practice of law itself where the kinds of retainers of lawyers, at least in big firms, were accustomed to getting are no longer available, business looks around and forces lawyers to compete for business.
Civil rights cannot employ all the young aspiring lawyers. They need to know that those that go into private practice can still do civil rights pro bono, can still help poor people pro bono and they need to look around at where their talents may be used across the board now that we’ve had a civil rights movement that has opened up so many more professions and more available for our generation of African-Americans.
David Coar: I couldn’t agree more with the Congresswoman. I was at a conference in Cameroon, West Africa a few years ago. And I met some brilliant young African lawyers when I was there. But at the conference they spent most of their time complaining about the lack of business. And I was shocked that here you had an African country and African lawyers couldn’t get business. It occurred to me that the problem was with the economy. That there–that the law was syphoning off a lot of the talent that would be–that everybody would be better off had some of those people gone to business school.
Booker T. Washington years ago understood that black lawyers were a business, that the law was a business. And so when he organized the first business groups, lawyers were part of it. The National Bar Association grew out of Booker T. Washington’s old organization. But they thought the business people were too conservative so they split off into their own organization. Black lawyers are going to struggle until black business is more successful. Desegregation killed black entrepreneurs.
And what happens is that you have lawyers–black lawyers, Hispanic lawyers, Asian lawyers graduating from the same law schools that everybody else in the big firms graduate from but as associates they’re depend on the senior people in the firm to feed them business, and for a whole host of reasons they aren’t being able to get enough business to keep them in the firms. So I think that we’d all be better off–the country would be better off if the legal profession didn’t drain off so much of the real talent in the county.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you think, Judge–stepping off of that, I know there’s a lot that has been said about how firms should try to have better diversity and it seems to me it’s not getting better. There’s a lot that’s said about it but rarely is diversity improving at large firms. I think for many of the reasons you just talked about. For a young lawyer of color who wants a successful career in private practice, do you think he or she might be better off–after a few years focusing on building his or her own firm as opposed to joining one of these white shoe firms that at one point was really a feather in your cap, but you’re not seeing a lot of associates of color getting promoted to partners at those firms it seems?
David Coar: If the black economy was in better shape I would agree with you. But to form their own firms they have to have clients. And with the poverty level among black people–don’t get me wrong, we’re a lot better off than we were in the ‘50s and ‘60s in terms of income, but still there are an awful lot of people out there who can’t really afford to pay market rates for legal services. And so–and in the absence of substantial black businesses, they’re gonna struggle. They’re gonna struggle. There are too many lawyers to serve too small a clientele.
And I agree with you about the law firms. The law firms–black associates are not surviving in the law firms. The law firms tend to pay lip service to diversity, but they don’t put any muscle behind it. If I go to a majority law firm and I’m hired as an associate, nobody’s accountable for my success in the firm. And so after a while I don’t get a lot of business, I don’t get a lot of cases pushed my way and before too long people look at me funny and say, “Well, what are your hours?” And so eventually I get the message that it’s time to move on.
It’s been true since the ‘60s that the best route for success in a big law firm for minority lawyers is a lateral move. Go to the government, get some expertise in a particular area and then come into the firm laterally. But going up the corporate–going up the law firm latter is almost as difficult today as it was 30 years ago.
Stephanie Francis Ward: All right. Mr. Chambers, would you like to add anything to that?
Julius Chambers: I just hope that we are doing much better than what the panel is suggesting. There are some real problems–I know, still there. And there are some problems that we aren’t going to resolve today. I know that there are still some major issues with race and I know that a lot of the young lawyers coming out are facing problems they don’t want to even think of in terms of race, but they will have to because that’s the only way they’re going to be able to solve the problems. But I don’t want to leave the impression that we–that I, at least, think that we haven’t made any progress. We have some hell of a progress and I think we’ll be making more in the years to come.
Eleanor Holmes Norton: If I could just say that Julius Chambers that you will see at least some black lawyers in top firms–very few. The judge is also right, though, it’s very difficult to come up that route and many of them are lateral, but there are very, very talented lawyers who are getting an opportunity. If your heart is in it, I would really encourage it.
But I’ll give you an example. Susan Rice, who is now the U.N. secretary, had finished college and she had all kinds of offers to go to law school, offers to go abroad on scholarship and she came to see me. I was then a full-time professor at Georgetown and I said to her–she was extraordinarily talented. She excelled at everything she did.
I said, “Susan, this is really what you want to do? Because I can tell you this much, with your interest in international affairs, I would love to see more bright, young African-Americans in that field. And I think there’s a lot of opportunity there, but you gotta do what really makes sense to you.”
You know, I see her from time to time now in Washington and she’s so glad she didn’t go to law school she doesn’t know what to do.
People have to think seriously about what they are suited for and whether they are ready for the long trudge–I mean it can cost you $50,000 a year to go to a good law school and you gotta pay that back, and this makes some lawyers not interested any longer in pro bono work or civil rights work because as it is, they’ll be in hock for a good part of their lives. So they’ve gotta think about their whole lives, not just do what I did because I did it, whoever I happen to be.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Let’s switch gears again a bit, and Congresswoman, I’m going to ask you first. Having a two-term black president in our country–what does that mean, do you think, and say about the status of civil rights in the United States?
Eleanor Holmes Norton: Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Okay. Can you expand on that for me?
Eleanor Holmes Norton: Yeah. The president is the leader of the country, he can make a real difference in what he says, and he does have power to do things that nobody else has, but it is a big mistake to think that his really extraordinary individual achievement has much to say about civil rights. What will it tell us about the voting rights case before the Supreme Court, or the Texas affirmative-action case before the court?
The president has to be very careful–perhaps less careful than he had to be in his first term, but because he is black, because he has a background in reaching out particularly to African-Americans and poor people, there will be many in this country who will doubt that he has everybody’s interests at heart. So we’ve got to help the president. I’m in the Congressional Black Caucus. We’re always pushing the president to do more. I’m not so much concerned about his saying more, I’m concerned about his doing more since African-Americans have suffered so horrendously from this recession which he had nothing to do about, but he’s got to do more and I don’t think the fact that he has achieved a second term–which it seems to me was indispensable for us to make any progress–says much about the state of civil rights in the United States today. That’s gonna take a whole boatload of people to move, including the traditional civil rights movement, African-Americans themselves, lawyers, the Congressional Black Caucus. That’s not on his shoulders alone.
And as we’ve seen there were times when he made a real difference, for example with the Dream Act with Hispanics, very important that he was able to move ahead on matters like that. With “don’t ask, don’t tell”–there were things like that for African-Americans that he can do. Most of has to do with money and with that kind of opportunity.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Judge David Coar, what do you think?
David Coar: When I was a college student in the early ‘60s I attended a lecture by Ayn Rand and she said that would not be a black president within the lifetime of anybody in that room. And I got up and walked out, and I hope she’s rolling over in her grave because it did happen within the lifetime of at least one person in the room and that’s me.
Things have changed in the sense that we have a black president. A majority of people in this country, I think, no longer would vote against somebody just because of the color of their skin. That having been said, I think that what we’re talking about in the law firms and what we see at least in the upper levels of many corporations in this country, the stereotypes still exist.
One of the themes in this last election was that the president was incompetent. There were a lot of code words used during the election that I think played on stereotypes. And there are stereotypes about African-Americans, there are stereotypes about Hispanics, there are stereotypes about people from the Middle East, stereotypes about Asians, stereotypes about women, and so those still exist. And I think that is the real challenge for the future.
I don’t think–I think there’s less of this type of categorical discrimination that we used to see. It’s still there, but I think there’s a lot less of that. And if there’s a problem for the future, I think the problem is to undermine and get–hopefully, eventually get rid of those stereotypes because they’re still been issues.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Mr. Chambers, what do you think?
Julius Chambers: Well, I really agree with what’s been said, but my opinion is sort of mixed with the belief that we can change things. I was involved a bit with the last election and going about the countryside talking with people about where they were putting their support and why. It really convinced me that there have been a lot of attitudes that have changed.
I remember back in the early days when we were just getting started with civil rights and talking with people. They never would dream of a black president, period. And they never would dream of a black judge. And I think having President Obama in position now has allowed a lot of people to appreciate that people can make contributions whatever their color or gender. And I think it’s really been great that we’ve had this president.
I know there’s some limits in what he can do–a president like that can do, but he’s there. And I know one of the things that came up a lot was the appointment to the Supreme Court–appointment of judges, and that’s extremely important because we could get some terrible people in office who would change everything if we didn’t have people in various positions. So it’s been great, and I remember back in what I call the early days when we were talking about getting some blacks in position as judges. And people saying, they’re paying judges enough now to interest a lot of people from all races in appointments to the bench. Well, we have that and it’s been–to me, a great advance in everything that we’ve been doing.
I think we still have some problems and we will continue to have problems and the young lawyers coming out today can rest assured if they want to get involved in some public interest or civil rights work, there will be enough opportunities for them to do so.
Stephanie Francis Ward: All right. And that is everything I have for the three of you. I want to thank you so much for your time, I appreciate it and I think this discussion turned out very well.
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Change is coming, albeit it slowly, 50 years after the March on Washington. Much has improved since the civil rights movement, but more is needed, lawyers involved in the 1960s struggles tell ABA Journal Podcast moderator Stephanie Francis Ward.
In This Podcast:
Julius Chambers, a Charlotte, N.C., lawyer, is of counsel with Ferguson Stein Chambers Adkins Gresham & Sumter. Chambers was the first legal intern with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and has argued numerous landmark civil rights cases. He later served as director and counsel of the Fund, focusing on improving education, voting rights, employment housing and prisons.
David Coar, a retired U.S. district judge for the Northern District of Illinois, was born and raised in Birmingham, Ala. Coar, now a neutral with the private dispute resolution center JAMS, is a former DePaul University College of Law professor. He also served as a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Eleanor Holmes Norton
Eleanor Holmes Norton, a congresswoman for the District of Columbia, was the first woman to chair the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Holmes, a former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer, was part of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project.