The Fierce Urgency of Now

The civil rights leader Martin Luther KIYesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Thousands of people participated in a week-long commemoration of the events of August 28, 1963, supporting King’s dream of racial harmony and the fight for justice and equality. Our vision of equality has broadened in scope to include all who face discrimination and economic hardship, such as people of color, women, immigrants, laborers, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBT community.

Despite much progress that has been made since 1963, persistent problems remain, especially in the areas of economic and social justice and job and income equality. Although no one doubts that we have made significant advancements from a time when segregation was legal in much of the country, there appear to be generational differences of opinion in just how much. For example, 45% of African- Americans think our economic system is unfair. And, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this summer that struck down part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has further spurred debate about how much has changed and what more there is to do. Many are calling for those celebrating the anniversary to also focus on the work ahead.

In honor of this momentous anniversary, as we contemplate the challenges of the future, we pause to reflect on the impact our pro bono efforts can have and how we can positively advance the civil rights movement. Here are a few inspiring examples:

• In conjunction with the ACLU and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Covington & Burling*† successfully represented several victims of racial profiling in Maricopa County, Ariz. In an effort to arrest undocumented immigrants, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office unlawfully targeted Latino drivers and passengers during traffic stops. Covington lawyers presented a statistical analysis of the traffic stop data, as well as internal documents from the Sheriff’s Office, arrest lists, and testimony of individuals subjected to these illegal practices. The court found that the Sheriff’s Office engaged in racial profiling and unlawful seizures in violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The ruling followed a high-profile bench trial which took place over seven days last summer.

Covington, along with the Center for Constitutional Rights, also represented the plaintiffs in Floyd v. City of New York, a high-profile case in which a federal judge ruled earlier this month that the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policies and practices violate the constitutional rights of blacks and Hispanics by targeting them for stops on the basis of their race or ethnicity.

• Representing Westchester Residential Opportunities, Inc., a nonprofit housing group, Weil, Gotshal & Manges*†resolved complaints of race-based housing discrimination in the Lower Hudson Valley, N.Y. The Weil team negotiated settlements with three rental agencies after conducting extensive testing that revealed disparate treatment of potential clients based on their race. In addition to recovering damages, employees of the rental agencies are now required to undergo training and education about fair housing laws.

Pepper Hamilton*†, along with the ACLU and the ACLU of Pennsylvania, filed a federal lawsuit challenging as unconstitutional a municipal ordinance in Norristown, Penn. (cities around the country have similar ordinances) that penalizes innocent tenants and their landlords for requesting police assistance by encouraging landlords to evict tenants when police are called to the property three times in four months for “disorderly behavior,” regardless of the reason for the call. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a woman who faced eviction from her home after seeking police protection from an abusive ex-boyfriend.

Taking inspiration from King and his freedom fighter colleagues, we in the pro bono community must “refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt” and redouble our efforts to promote freedom, equality, and access to justice. As the marchers who converged on Washington, D.C. 50 years ago – and again this week – understood, it will take all of us working together to bring about even more progress. In the words of President Barack Obama, we must believe “that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it.”

* denotes a Signatory to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge®
denotes a Member of the Law Firm Pro Bono Project