Thank you, Judge Abdus-Salaam. I appreciate your kind words, and – because we’ve been friends for so many years – I’m especially grateful for the stories you left out. You see, Shelia has known me since my college days, when I was walking around Columbia University’s campus with a lot to learn and with a propensity for making mistakes. It was the 70’s. But even back then, during our college and then law school years together, I could tell that Shelia was headed for great things. As a student, as an attorney, and, now, as a judge, she has always been a champion for the cause of justice. And it is a special honor to receive this award from someone whose career and character I have long admired.
Let me also thank the Metropolitan Black Bar Association for putting me in such good company – among so many old friends, distinguished attorneys, and three very accomplished awardees. To Jurist of the Year, Judge [Yvonne] Lewis, to Lawyer of the Year, Lisa Davis, and to Corporate Counsel of the Year, Atiba Adams, congratulations.
There are many reasons why I’m delighted to be here. Above all, it’s great to be home, in the city of my birth. Like a few of you, I grew up in Queens. And one of the great blessings of my life was being raised by parents and grandparents who held a deep appreciation for this country and, in particular, for this great city. My father and each one of my grandparents – like so many who set out toward America’s shores – arrived in New York from another place- the great island of Barbados - arrived with little more than a hope for a better life and a dream for their children.
That dream of progress and of opportunity – for my own family, for my people and for my nation – is what inspired my interest in the law, my study of the law, and every step of a career spent serving and trying to perfect our justice system. But I was also inspired by what I saw and experienced here in New York. Growing up on the streets of East Elmhurst and Harlem, I saw the struggles of people who’d been left out and left behind – people who’d lost faith in seeing the promise of justice fulfilled in their lifetimes. Years later, in Manhattan, I witnessed first hand the power of the law to change lives. During law school, I spent a summer interning at the NAACP. Legal Defense Fund, where I had the chance to learn about, and even work on, some of the most important discrimination suits of the day. I also saw how the work of dedicated attorneys can help to restore hope, to rebuild dreams, and to advance the cause of justice.
I wanted to become one of those lawyers. I wanted to be part of a profession that, since our nation’s earliest days, has taken up the challenge of achieving and administering justice. And I was encouraged by the stories and examples of our predecessors – especially the many lawyers throughout history who chose to serve the cause of justice, even though they were excluded by our nation’s system of justice. Without their contributions and without their sacrifice, none of us would be here. And our nation would not have seen the progress that we celebrate tonight. We must never forget that.
Yet, just as our history in this country is one of setback, it is also one of steps forward. This association has always made sure of that – and made a tradition of speaking truth to power, of taking the solution to the problem, and – as this year’s theme reminds us – of consistently “raising the bar.”
Each of you is part of a long line of trailblazers. And I think it’s particularly significant that we’ve gathered here, on this day, to honor your legacy. You see, exactly thirty five years ago today – June 28, 1975 – the Harlem Lawyers Association, in conjunction with your other parent organization, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Lawyers Association, set up a few tables and a few chairs at the foot of the State Office Building on 125th Street to offer something that New York City, and much of the world, had never seen before: a free legal clinic.
It was a simple idea, but a revolutionary moment. A July 1975 New York Times article about that street-corner clinic begins this way: “Free legal advice. That sounds like a contradiction for a profession schooled in Abraham Lincoln's adage that time and advice are a lawyer's stock and trade.”
Pro bono work may have seemed like an apparent “contradiction” to some back then. But thanks to the determination of your predecessors, volunteer lawyers and free legal advice has gone from rare to regular. And, now, it’s considered a responsibility of even the highest-powered, highest-paid attorneys. That’s a credit to your group, even if it’s a credit you don’t often receive.
For me, the most interesting part of looking back to June 28, 1975, is examining the top issues those lawyers were asked to address. Thirty-five years ago, Harlem's residents sought help for: “landlord-tenant problems, welfare, Social Security, food stamps, labor problems around unemployment, criminal-law problems, medical malpractice, divorce and Family Court situations.” In other words, much remains unchanged. These are, more or less, the same legal crises that indigent people continue to face here in New York, and all across the country. And, unfortunately, we are seeing these legal dilemmas – and the same limitations to receiving legal advice – more and more often.
That’s why, as many of you know, the Department of Justice recently took an historic step to make access to justice a permanent part of our work. In March, we launched a landmark “Access to Justice Initiative,” led by the eminent Harvard Law Professor, Larry Tribe. This new office was established to fulfill our responsibility to enhance the fairness and integrity of our legal system. And it reflects an ongoing assurance that expanding access to legal services is, and will continue to be, a priority for this Department of Justice.
I’m pleased to report that the Access team has hit the ground running with an ambitious agenda. They are meeting with leaders across our profession, from Chief Judge Lippman here in New York to the White House Domestic Policy Council, to form the partnerships necessary to open the doors of justice for all – regardless of income. Just a few weeks ago, Professor Tribe traveled to lower Manhattan to kick off the Justice Department’s Federal Government - New York City Pro Bono Program, which we’ve just launched after great successes in Washington, D.C. and Chicago. As those events proved, there are endless opportunities for even the busiest government attorneys to provide pro bono services to those who need our help most.
But I don’t need to tell you that. I don’t need to tell you that such public service is what the best of America is all about. Your parent associations were inspired by a commitment to civil rights, to equal opportunity, and to the cause of justice. They advocated against segregation and helped to improve a system that once undermined the very rights and privileges that it should have been protecting. In short, they were more than professional organizations; they were agents for change.
Our predecessors were the real trailblazers. I’m referring to the many great African-American attorneys from this city, but especially to two unforgettable ones who left us this past year. Percy Sutton, the great civil rights activist, Freedom Rider, entrepreneur, politician – and, of course, lawyer from Harlem – passed away in December, a great loss to our profession. And in February, Ermyn Stroud, better known as “the Judge,” left us, too. She was a trailblazer not only for African-American lawyers, but also for female attorneys. And she was the visionary president of the Harlem Lawyer’s Association who led that first free legal clinic on this day in 1975. We are all fortunate to be the beneficiaries of their work. And we must always remember, always, that we follow in their footsteps and stand on their, and others, shoulders. We all owe much to that generation.
These leaders believed so deeply in the values and promise of this nation that, even when America sometimes let them down, they did not give up. And their efforts made it possible for me, and for all of us, to follow our dreams into the law – and to use that opportunity to improve the lives of others.
Despite the progress that’s been made in creating a more equal nation, we have more to do. It may be tempting – when you look at the many accomplished attorneys in this room, or at the diversity of people walking the halls of Congress, or at the man sitting in the Oval Office – to think that equal justice has been achieved for all Americans. But it will take more than a thriving black bar association and the election of the first African-American President to fully secure the promise of equality for every American. And it will certainly take more than the appointment of the first African-American Attorney General to ensure that the American justice system reflects the values and principles enshrined in our nation’s founding documents.
We at the Justice Department are committed to this work. In addition to launching the Access to Justice Initiative, we’ve strengthened the Civil Rights Division and focused on civil rights protections in employment, housing, voting, and sentencing. Every American – and certainly every person in this room – can play a role in advancing this work.
The spirit of justice that led to the creation of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association on July 5th, 1984 still burns brightly this evening. Next Monday, we will mark the 26th Anniversary of this Association. And the day before that, we will join our neighbors and countrymen in celebration of our nation’s founding, 234 years ago. The best way, I believe, to honor this past is to build on the extraordinary progress we’ve seen, until justice is no longer an aspiration, but a reality for every American, rich or poor, black or white.
Just as we stand on the shoulders of the leaders, lawyers, and advocates who came before us, we must now continue their work. Each one of us has the ability – and the duty – to help others realize their potential, to further open the doors of opportunity, and to push our nation forward on the long road toward justice and equality. We can succeed in the effort began by those who blazed the path we are now on if we remain committed, if we remain focused, if we remain true to the values that have allowed our people to flourish in the most difficult of times.
Let us walk this road together- committed to our work and dedicated to the principles that will lead us to true justice and equality.