Battling for civil rights through pro bono
This week the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. Thousands gathered on the National Mall to remember Dr. King’s legacy and be inspired to continue striving for the America he envisioned.
Here at Taproot, his legacy is not only an incredibly powerful reminder of the work we have ahead of us to create real social change and of how important it is, ourselves, to be more aware of the civil rights issues which continue to plague our society, but also a reminder of the power of pro bono, and of its early roots in the history of the civil rights movement in this country.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy realized we were facing a crisis – and urged lawyers to use their skills to fight the battle for civil rights in the courtroom. He created The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law , dedicated to upholding civil rights protections by harnessing the power of private attorneys and firms pro bono, as well as conducting advocacy and educating the public. This institution was vital to protecting and advocating for people who faced discrimination, opening law centers staffed by top lawyers from top law firms to work pro bono in the South. In the 70s and 80s their work became commonplace nationwide, working on issues ranging from school desegregation to employment discrimination.
What these lawyers did, standing up to the anger and fear that pervaded the south, and advocating for justice and equality under the law, was a manifestation of the work of Dr. King. And legal advocacy was key to the success of his movement.
Honoring the history of the pro bono movement
Today, you say the word ‘pro bono’ and the first you hear is ‘ahh, lawyers’ – and it’s really because of the work that was done during the civil rights era supporting activists and every day individuals. They launched their own pro bono movement, it took off, and they made ‘doing it pro bono’ an integral part of what it means to be a legal professional in this country – and part of being a valued member of the legal community. We have a lot we can learn from their success.
But the way Dr. King’s legacy lives on in the pro bono movement isn’t just through lawyers – at least I’d like to think it’s not. Pro bono embodies his legacy in another, much more fundamental way. Unlike traditional corporate volunteering, pro bono has nonprofit and business professionals work together, in mutual respect for their talents and time and toward a shared vision for the success of the client. It manifests MLKs vision of a future of collaboration built on mutual respect.
Let’s remember Dr. King and strive harder every day to embody his work. While that goes above and beyond working in your community pro bono, I’d say it’s a healthy start. As always, you can apply to be a pro bono consultant in your community here. And don’t hesitate to reach out, join the community, make a difference.
Let’s make giving our time and skills an integral part of our career. Let’s follow in King’s legacy.