Remarks of Eric H. Holder, Jr.
Deputy Attorney General
A Call to Action for Racial Justice in the 21st Century
American Corporate Counsel Association Meeting
San Diego, Ca
November 4, 1999
Good evening. It is my privilege, both as Deputy Attorney General and as a member of the bar, to be here to speak with you about the President's Call to Action and Lawyers for One America.
Early last Fall, the President gave me a task. He stated that our nation was progressing in its quest for racial healing, but he wanted to do more. Despite a booming economy, the creation of millions of new jobs, low inflation, and an exceptionally low crime rate, the President was concerned that many racial and ethnic minorities in this country were not being treated as equals. These concerns led him to launch the Race Initiative, and also led him to ask me to convene a group of lawyers to discuss what lawyers can do to speed our nation's search for equality and One America.
I brought together an ad hoc group of 15 or so individuals, including Fred Krebs and Veta Richardson of ACCA, who would serve as a planing committee and brain trust for the task you had given us. In addition to ACCA, the Presidents of the American Bar Association, National Asian and Pacific Bar Association, National Bar Association, National Hispanic Bar Association, Native American Bar Association, the co-chairs of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, and a few other key individuals began meeting in my office monthly to discuss what lawyers could do to facilitate racial justice.
Ideas took shape and flew; thoughts quickly progressed into concrete plans. And I was startled by the energy, wisdom, and dedication of this group at every turn. An Internet LISTSERV was created -- by ACCA I should add -- to handle the huge email traffic between the group; conference calls began taking place weekly, and then soon they were daily. This was a monumental effort, and one that required the closest of coordination and understanding. In the end, this teamwork produced a plan of action - a plan that concentrated on the unique talents lawyers can bring to solving everyday problems that face Americans.
It was that insight that led to the President's Call to Action on July 20 of this year. The President's Call recognized the fact that lawyers aren't just a bunch of people in the courtroom. In the President's eyes, all lawyers can bring a host of other skills besides courtroom advocacy to the effort to further racial justice. The transactional lawyer who puts deals together might set up financing for an inner-city revitalization project. A litigator's experience with settlement negotiations might provide her with the insight necessary to begin a dialogue between community leaders and law enforcement representatives on issues such as racial profiling and excessive use of force. An in-house corporate attorney might put her talents to use in helping a minority-owned business succeed. A lobbyist might use his connections to develop ways to improve financing of local schools. The list is as endless as lawyers are creative and innovative in applying their talents.
In his July address, the President also asked us to start a national conversation; a conversation about what those in the legal profession can do to help bring about racial justice in the United States. Some might say that this conversation involving the legal community's role in achieving racial justice started over two centuries ago on the day the Constitution was ratified. Or perhaps this conversation began even earlier, when American colonies passed laws relegating blacks to inferior status and slavery.
Examples throughout history have borne out this long relationship between lawyers and the quest for racial justice: The Lincoln-Douglas debates, where two of the most famous lawyer-politicians of their day argued the slavery issue; the Supreme Court's opinions in Plessy v. Ferguson and half a century later in Brown v. Board of Education. These are just some of the most notable episodes showing lawyers' inextricable connection to and participation in the issue of racial justice. Some have been moments of pride, while others sagas of shame. So much of our nation's progress on race has occurred through law - from the Reconstruction Amendments guarantee of equal protection of the laws for all citizens to the Civil Rights struggles in the 1950s and 1960s.
But, historically, the law has also been used as a tool to create racial injustice. From the original Constitution's protection of slavery to Jim Crow statutes, law has often been used as a mechanism to oppress racial minorities. It is our challenge to spend our best efforts reversing the damage done when law was exploited to divide us instead of bringing us together as One America. Lawyers will always have a critical role and special responsibility in such efforts.
When you think of some of the positive exemplars of courageous service and selflessness in our profession - whether it be Thurgood Marshall or Nicholas Katzenbach or any other leader -- they shared a common underlying trait: the belief that their work was part of a larger project. They saw their work as what was required by the nation and what was incumbent upon them as concerned citizens. The courtroom struggles were "politics by other means" for these legal pioneers. Often blocked from bringing about racial justice in the halls of Congress or in the statehouses across the nation, these lawyers sought other avenues to bring about change. This sense of the multi-faceted, the imaginative, the inventive lawyer is what I believe is as necessary today as it was back then. The then-novel legal arguments and strategies employed by civil rights lawyers evidenced, I believe, impatience with the status quo and the accepted way of doing things. Thinking outside the box was the modus operandi of the day.
The idea behind the President's Call, and the subsequent consortium it spawned which we call "Lawyers for One America" is this: If the past is prologue, lawyers will have an extraordinary impact in determining whether our nation has significantly more or significantly less racial justice in the 21st Century. Only when we know that lawyers are contributing to the maximum extent possible in making this the nation of the future, free of racial discord, full of equality and where opportunity is a reality for all will we be able to know that we have fulfilled our duty to our country and to our creed.
And so I am touched and honored by your presence here tonight. This event could not have been possible without the dedication and hard work of so many people in this room, from ACCA and otherwise.
But now we have a task. And I need your help. I need you, as corporate counsels, to think about how you can help diversify your corporations. I need your ideas and insights about how your General Counsels can do pro bono work - and encourage their staffs to do it as well. I need you to think about ways in which your corporations can insist that the outside law firms they hire to work for them live up to the President's challenge. For the fact is, as leaders in the pro bono effort such as Charles Morgan and Bill McBride have recognized, pro bono not only helps our poorest citizens, not only helps the image of the Bar, it also helps businesses. A diverse workforce is critical in this international economy.
It therefore is no surprise that President Clinton, who has sought to open a dialogue on race in America, focused in on diversity in his Call to Action. Nor is it a surprise that the new President of the ABA, Bill Paul, has made diversity of the legal profession the centerpiece of his tenure as President. But it is not only the bar, but many other entities, that must aid in this effort. And, in particular, as ACCA has recognized, our corporations can help in the quest for diversity.
In saying this, I want to level with you: I know that folks in Washington don't have all the answers. I -- and the other folks like Fred and Veta who make up part of the consortium known as Lawyers for One America -- need your advice and ideas about how we can help you. How can we aid in your search for diverse talent? How can we help encourage a commitment to pro bono by your corporations? If you could help us understand your concerns, then maybe Lawyers for One America can be more effective. For this reason, the session I went to earlier in the day, where I met with Chief Legal Officers of some of the corporations here today, was so helpful. I would appreciate it very much if all of you could think about ways in which we could help each other.
And so, in closing, I want to thank ACCA for their strong participation in the President's Call to Action, and for giving me an opportunity to speak to all of you about the Call. And I look forward to working with all of you over the next year so that we can make the President's vision a reality.