"A lawyer's either a social engineer or a parasite on society." Thus spoke the great civil rights pioneer, professor and lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston to his students at Howard Law School.
Houston was a brilliant lawyer and social engineer. When he started his law practice in 1924, it was he who pioneered the idea of using the Constitution to promote racial justice. The grandson of slaves, Houston was born in Washington, D.C. in 1985, attended Amherst College, and after serving in the Army, enrolled at Harvard Law School, becoming the first black member of the Harvard Law Review. He was a teacher at Howard and later became its Dean. One of his students was Thurgood Marshall. Houston devised the long-range strategy that ultimately led the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education to declare that segregated public education was unconstitutional. Houston died in 1950, four years before the Supreme Court decided Brown and made his vision a reality. He seems to have worked himself to death, spending 18-hour days trying cases, planning NAACP strategy, teaching at Howard, and speaking widely and writing on civil rights issues. After his death, federal judge William Hastie said, "he guided us through the legal wilderness of second-class citizenship. He was truly the Moses of that journey."
I was reminded of Charles Hamilton Houston when thinking about you - lawyers, law students, interns and staff with the National Lawyers Guild - because you are exactly the people about whom Mr. Houston spoke. Indeed, the Guild's mission could have been authored by Charles Houston: "dedicated to the need for basic and progressive change in the structure of our political and economic system. . . to the end that human rights shall be regarded as more sacred than property interests."
When Mr. Houston was a lawyer and Dean of Howard Law School, he could not join the American Bar Association because the organization restricted its membership to whites only. There was but one U.S. Bar Association to which he could belong, and that was the NLG, founded 80 years ago. The Guild was the first and only U.S. bar association in the country to extend membership to lawyers of color.
The Guild has been in the forefront of every major national issue dating from its creation in 1937: it opposed the Japanese Relocation Camps, when the ACLU had no opposition. The Guild has survived the attacks by McCarthy and his ultra-right wing cronies and did not collaborate with HUAC, nor did it expel its communist members. The Guild survived the 1950's and then took a leading role in the civil rights struggles of the 60's and in the anti-war movement of the 70's. The Guild has always been the resistance.
You are the chosen ones of the legal profession - you chose to utilize your legal training to be the social engineers of whom Charles Hamilton spoke. You chose to channel your legal skills and acumen to your passion for the law and your compassion for the downtrodden. You give lawyers a good name. And, the world needs you now, more than ever.
I am honored to be here to celebrate the Guild, and in particular, to congratulate my two long-time friends, Constance Carpenter and Dan Mayfield, who are being honored by you this evening.
After I learned that I would be permitted to say a few words about these two remarkable lawyers. I emailed Dan to get some background information. The first thing he wrote in his email to me was, "Constance and I are NOT a couple and have never been a couple." Okay. . .if you say so Dan.
When I began my career on the bench in 1982, Dan and Constance were among the first lawyers who appeared before me. I was always pleased to see them because I knew that they would be prepared and because they never wasted my time. It was clear that they cared for their clients for whom they rigorously fought. Dan has been honored by several organizations including the local criminal defense bar as the Lawyer of the Year in 2013, and in 2011 was given the Empowering Muslims award by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Constance, who is Dan's LAW partner - is the "go to person" on children's issues in the courts. She pioneered the movement to have Departments of Social Services conduct home studies for gay parents desiring to adopt. Constance has been honored by Legal Advocates for Children & Youth, the Pro-Bono Committee, and twice received the Henry Collada award for her outstanding legal work on behalf of families and children. Despite what Dan or anyone else says, you two are a terrific couple.
A few months before Charles Houston died, he recorded a message for his five-year old son. "I am concerned that the Negro not be content simply with demanding an equal share in the existing system," he said. "It seems to me that his fundamental responsibility and his historical challenge is to use his weight, since he has less to lose in the present system than anybody else or any other group, to make sure that the system which shall survive in the United States of America shall be a system which guarantees justice and freedom for everyone."
Mr. Houston would have been so proud of all of you because you Guild lawyers, the chosen ones, have always strived to ensure that the system that shall survive in the United States of America shall be a system which guarantees justice and freedom for everyone.
I leave you with the words of noted author Alice Walker, words that inspire me every day and words that you National Lawyers Guild members exemplify daily. She said, "Activism is my rent for living on this planet." May your activism, within and without the courtroom, continue to be your rent, too.
Resist, Persist, Prevail.
One more thing, as of this month, I'm a card-carrying member of the National Lawyers Guild.
Read more about Judge Cordell here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LaDoris_Cordell