The Role of an Activist Attorney in the #BlackLivesMatter Movement

For civil rights lawyers, litigating isn't enough. They need to engage with the struggle of black Americans firsthand.

Photo from Shutterstock.

Last September, at the 75th anniversary alumni reunion for the late Thurgood Marshall’s NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), former Director-Counsel Elaine Jones asked the gathering of civil rights attorneys if they were up to the task of building a new racial justice movement. Her call moved me—a lawyer turned writer and NGO consultant who had once turned down an internship at LDF to focus on repaying school debt.

Later in the evening, Jones told me one of her many stories. Once, in 1973, she found herself locked in a jail room for two hours with more than 40 male inmates whom she had come to counsel on resentencing. Jones feared for her safety but averted panic by focusing on what the prisoners had to say. This experience cemented her role of helping clients most in need. It reminded her that her calling was also a choice.

Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, had learned this a decade before when tapped by LDF to run its Mississippi office. Days after she won her first desegregation case, her plaintiffs’ names were tacked up on a telegraph pole. They were forced off their plantation with no income, said Edelman.

Edelman and Jones were part of the vanguard of a quest for justice­—one that a newer, younger cadre continues today. Since the 1970s, “critical race theory” scholars such as Derrick Bell and Michelle Alexander have inspired a generation seeking to dismantle systemic racial bias and navigate an increasingly sophisticated architecture of political and judicial opposition. Their writings inspired Justin Hansford to become a law professor.

But it was not until his arrest during protests in Ferguson, Missouri, that Hansford felt truly connected to a broader movement. “Ferguson was a moment,” he said. “As a young lawyer of color, you want to fight for this community.”

By working directly with organizers, lawyers “can actually be a part of the avenue of that movement,” said Hansford. Still, there is a void in leadership, meager training in social justice lawyering, and not much passing of the baton. Other young attorneys agree, saying that this and the adversarial nature of litigation turned them away. But with a resurgence of protest, there is hope for what Edelman calls “a new transforming movement” that is broader and more strategic than before.

This movement will require elite professionals to fit within a broader paradigm for social change, said Purvi Shah, director of the Bertha Justice Institute. To lead well, she added, we must explore how to work collaboratively, along with how the law relates to “social movements, the emotion and trauma of what’s happening.”

“As a young lawyer of color, you want to fight for this community.”

Colette Pichon Battle learned this on the ground. A New Orleans native, she was working a corporate job in Washington, D.C., when Hurricane Katrina hit. Her return home to work for the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy radicalized her and brought her closer to understanding the lawyer’s role in the community. Battle described herself as a “child of the civil rights era” who studied how its leaders perfected the strategic art of litigation, but this foundation was not enough to prepare her, she said. Her work to achieve justice exposed her to “some real political education.” Later, in environmental lawsuits to recover damages after the BP oil spill, Battle learned through a human rights lens to place the interests of poor black Louisianans at the forefront.

Leading well, it seems, requires a personal resolve and a selflessness that brings Elaine Jones to mind. As leaders, “we need you to actually love it and put your body on the line,” said Battle.

Battle’s mentor, Jaribu Hill, echoed this message when she appeared on a panel at a Law for Black Lives conference last July. “Take your sheepskins off!” she commanded, as the room erupted into cheers. I felt more ready than ever when I rose to my feet, in solidarity with the sum of our different paths.