Alongside the Civil Rights Movement, the efforts of lawyers—most of whom were Jewish—were crucial in successfully overturning Jim Crow laws in the South, historian Stephen Whitfield said during a webinar hosted by Historic Newton and the Newton Free Library on Thursday night.
“Attorneys were able to use their understanding of the law to stretch its meaning to include the effort at racial equality in ways that were to change the very meaning and interpretation of the U.S. Constitution,” Whitfield, professor emeritus of American civilization at Brandeis University, said.
The work of Jewish lawyers is critically under researched, according to Whitfield. They largely came from the North, with a number from the Midwest and Northwest, and they worked to dismantle legally enforceable racial segregation when southern lawyers were either unable or unwilling to devote themselves to the work required, he said.
“In 1960, in the United States, the proportion of lawyers who were African American was something like 1 percent, so you have virtually no constituency of Black attorneys who would be numerous enough to take on the role of challenging racial segregation in the South and especially in the Deep South,” Whitfield said. “At the beginning of 1960, the state that is most closely associated with Jim Crow, which is Mississippi, had exactly four Black lawyers in the entire state.”
If a Black lawyer took on litigation, he would enter the courtroom at risk of his dignity and livelihood being stripped of him, because doing so would cast him into an adversarial confrontation with white lawyers, according to Whitfield.
As a result, they could face significant penalties and risks.
To avoid the risk, Black attorneys largely dealt with wills, estates, and divorces—not civil rights cases, Whitfield said.
Among the white lawyers in the South, many accepted racial segregation and did not believe that the law could be applied to overcome segregation, according to Whitfield. He said that for those who believed in the cause for racial justice, taking on a civil rights case often exposed them to sharp social stigma and alienation from their communities. This meant that external support was necessary for the success of the movement, according to Whitfield.
Several organizations mobilized and sent attorneys to the South, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the National Lawyers Guild, according to Whitfield.
The National Lawyers Guild was a progressive organization that formed as a counter to the American Bar Association, which did not allow substantial Jewish membership and barred Black attorneys from joining, Whitfield said.
“There was also a very important ad hoc organization, which was the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee, established in the spring of 1964,” he said. “Its first co-chairperson, had a Newton connection, fortunately, and that was Father Robert Drinan, who was on the faculty of the law school at Boston College.”
Drinan, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1971–81, co-chaired the organization, according to Whitfield. The Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee found many lawyers outside of the South and sent them on pro bono assignments for about two weeks.
There were steep risks for the lawyers who traveled down South to work on civil rights cases, Whitfield said. They were required to take meticulous precautions, such as calling the organization’s headquarters every two hours and making sure their car had sufficient gas and fully pressurized tires to avoid breaking down and getting stranded on dark roads.
“They were expected in their cars to remove any interior lights so that if they stepped out of their car at night, there would not be a light behind their bodies, which would make it easier for a potential murderer,” Whitfield said. “They were not expected to ever tell a policeman where they were staying that night. They were told not ever to tell an FBI agent where they were staying.”
The work also required remarkable creativity.
“Ingenuity was required when the entire apparatus of courtrooms and judicial operations in the Deep South, in particular, was organized to keep Jim Crow intact and to break down any efforts to weaken legally enforced racial segregation,” Whitfield said.
Many of the lawyers had to have a strong grasp of the law to know how key clauses of the U.S. Constitution could be expanded and know how to make arguments that would help prove that discriminatory laws were unconstitutional, according to Whitfield. Of these lawyers, Anthony G. Amsterdam, an attorney with the organization, was consistently called upon for the most difficult civil rights cases.
Whitfield said that Amsterdam found a Reconstruction-era law that allowed cases to be pulled from state courts and immediately transferred to federal courts, which helped ensure that the law was enforced equally and as it was intended to be enforced.
Amsterdam skillfully applied this method to help increase his cases’ chances of success.
“It basically was a crucial moment by which the worst features of Southern segregation were eliminated through the power of the Civil Rights Movement, and the attorneys who helped them,” Whitfield said. “For many of these attorneys, that experience was life-changing and I would like to argue that for America, it was also history-changing.”