Bar News - January 19, 2007
Serving the Memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.
By: By John E. Tobin, Jr.
Author’s note, January, 2007: This article originally was published in the Jan. 11, 1989 issue of New Hampshire Law Weekly, the predecessor of New Hampshire Bar News. Upon re-reading this article, I am very happy to realize that in New Hampshire, the United States, and the world, we have made important progress in the past 18 years. But Martin Luther King would still call us, as lawyers, to harness our skills and our souls to keep moving our communities, our nation, and the world further along what he called the long arc of justice. There is more work to be done, right in front of us.
Does the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., mean anything to those of us who practice law in New Hampshire today?
New Hampshire did not have a history of slavery or rampant violence against blacks and therefore was not a focus of the civil rights movement like Mississippi or the other states of the Deep South. Only a few among the present ranks of New Hampshire lawyers played even a minor role in the years of marches, sit-ins, speeches and struggle that culminated in the landmark civil rights bills of 1964 and 1965. Nonetheless, I am convinced that Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and his words have special meaning for all of us whose daily work is creating, interpreting, and enforcing the law.
Dr. King’s passage from Montgomery in 1955 to Memphis in 1968 focused a spotlight on a legal system that was often initially cruel and perverted, but eventually proved capable of self-redemption. After years of unpunished Klan violence and total political disenfranchisement, blacks faced massive brutality and waves of arrests as they sought to assert their moral rights. The nation was forced to look at a legal system, theoretically fair and noble, that had been twisted to enshrine and protect racism and violence.
As Dr. King pointed out, segregation was fully legal, having been duly enacted into law by the legislatures of all southern states (and some northern states as well). He reminded us that all of the vicious anti-Semitic policies of Nazi Germany were likewise fully legal just as apartheid was the law in South Africa. He made us remember that our Constitution, which we were taught to revere, gave recognition to slavery.
While the legal system legitimized and protected the “Whites Only” signs and brutality of Southern law enforcement, the same system eventually became a powerful instrument for eradicating the evils of segregation. The Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson was the final step in building the legal edifice of segregation, but the Supreme Court eventually reversed itself in Brown v. Board of Education. The Brown decision was the result of years of effort by lawyers who did not abandon hope that the law could be awakened to the evil of legally compelled racial segregation. Thereafter, a generation of courageous federal judges in the South wrote and enforced hundreds of decisions that opened up schools and colleges, accommodations and transportation, and, perhaps most importantly, voting booths, to millions of blacks.
While there is nothing in New Hampshire that approaches the enormous evil of slavery or apartheid or the segregation of the post-Reconstruction South, there are systemic social and economic injustices in New Hampshire which cry out for action but do not move us to alter the patterns of our daily lives, so they never become the center of our attention and the focus of our energy.
There are children here who cannot go to the doctor or get the medicine they need because their parents are poor. There are elderly widows who go without food at the end of each month because our Social Security system (and our society) does not recognize or reward their past year’s daily toil and devotion to their families. There are working families without homes because they are not a priority either for the market or the government. There are real limits to what the legal system can do about these problems, but virtually no limits on what lawyers as leaders can do about these or other issues of justice.
We will serve Martin Luther King Jr.’s memory well if we will remember to ask ourselves not only “Is it legal?” but also “Is it morally right?” when a client sits in our office asking for our help because he or she has run afoul of a statute, rule or policy. With our skills as lawyers we can strengthen the rule of law by never forgetting that the purpose of law is justice.
Attorney John E. Tobin, Jr. is the executive director of New Hampshire Legal Assistance, based in Manchester.
Editor’s note: The Bar Association voted to formally recognize the holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1988.