The paths we choose to follow

Mark Levison, The Levison Group

Lawyers sometimes need a little inspiration. Sometimes we forget what it was that “called us” to the Bar. For me, it was initially Perry Mason, and then it was the 60s: protests, riots, and conflict over turning our backs on some of the things our parents had taught us. Those were challenging times, when the Justice Department’s FBI was led by an odd fellow, J. Edgar Hoover. Sometimes it felt like it was necessary to demonstrate for our civil rights and for free speech. Sometimes demonstrators ended up being shot. I remember Kent State and Jackson State. I can’t forget when Daniel Ellsberg risked life imprisonment to reveal secret government documents about the Vietnam War, nor the group of Nixon’s “CIA type” burglars trying to steal information belonging to the opposing party. I was in Washington, D.C. when Ralph Nader’s team of “raiders” worked for almost nothing to expose wrongs. His book, “Unsafe At Any Speed,” shook the auto industry and corporate America in general. I was in Washington when the SDS’ Weathermen took laws into their own hands. I was in Washington when secret American bombings in Southeast Asia were exposed by the senator for whom I worked, and when he was told that was a treasonous act. Those exciting and difficult times led me to the Bar. Law school, however, has a way of directing would-be civil rights champions towards “accomplishments” like fancy jobs in big firms, working for fancy people in big companies. 

I was in Washington the day Martin Luther King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. He had gone there to fight for striking sanitation workers whose grievances included unfair working conditions and poor pay. 

That evening, as smoke rose up into the Washington sky in response to the assassination, I took off from National Airport to go home for spring break. My girlfriend (and later lawyer wife) stayed behind and sought shelter in the suburbs.

This Martin Luther King Day, almost 50 years after the death of Dr. King, I found myself sitting next to former Ambassador Andrew Young. He was in town to give a talk about Martin Luther King and Young’s own life fighting for equal rights. Ambassador Young talked about his father, a man standing only 5’4”, who told the future civil rights leader about the importance of not losing his temper in conflict situations.  Young, who witnessed Dr. King laying in his own blood on that Memphis balcony, eventually became a Congressman and a two-term mayor of Atlanta. He told those of us who had come to the King Day celebration that his dad had explained to him that since he was 5’4”, the tallest Andy was likely to be was maybe 5’8”, so he wasn’t going to be able to beat up people who thought differently than him. He added that “although you might be able to outrun some of them, I don’t want you running away from anybody.” He counseled his son to use his wits and his convictions to calmly and intelligently get his views across. Young told of the time when Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy, King’s successor as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had been incarcerated in a Georgia jail. Sergeant Forrester (I don’t remember the Sergeant’s real name) was at the police desk when Andrew Young walked in and asked to speak with Dr. King and Rev. Abernathy. The Sergeant, without looking up, yelled: “There’s a little nigger out here who wants to talk to the two big niggers.” Young told us that after he finally got in and told Dr. King about Sergeant Forrester’s attitude, Dr. King admonished him, saying: “Well you need to find a way to get in here every day so I can get information from the outside and give you directions.” Young relied upon teachings of his father to get that done. On the way out of the police station on that first day, he approached Sergeant Forrester and, reading his name tag, said “I want to thank you Sergeant Forrester for being kind enough to let me in to speak with Dr. King.” The next day when he walked into the police station, he said, “Sergeant Forrester, you are such a big man, you must have played football here in Georgia.” They got to talking about that and some other things personal to Sergeant Forrester, and then he asked the sergeant if he would mind letting him in, once again, to speak with the prisoners. Sergeant Forrester said, “Sure. Go right in.” Young told the story of how every day thereafter he talked to the sergeant about things in Sergeant Forrester’s life that would interest him. 

Young also told us the story of how he had been unimpressed with Jimmy Carter’s civil rights record, but that Coretta King convinced him that Jimmy Carter was their governor, and he needed to stand beside him, so he did. He told the gathering how eventually President Carter appointed him as the Ambassador to the United Nations. Young explained that at the time of his appointment, he had some campaign debt. A supporter told Young he needed to retire that debt so it could not be used to indicate bias in his role at the United Nations. The supporter said he would arrange for him to give a speech at a fundraiser in Maine, which would be attended by some well off people, where he could raise enough money to retire his debt. Young agreed and gave the speech.

Afterwards, a tall man in starched white pants, wearing what Ambassador Young described as a green jacket that looked like he had just come from Augusta, walked up to him and complimented him on his talk. The fellow then said, “You don’t know who I am, do you?”  Young admitted he did not. Sergeant Forrestor re-introduced himself, now as a member of the country club security force. He explained that he had been so moved by what he had learned from the conversations and interactions with Andrew Young, and the incarcerated Dr. King, that he had decided to move to Maine to get his children away from what he described as an environment of hate. He said that was the best decision of his life. Forrester told Andy Young how his family had thrived in Maine, and that his kids had gone on to college and were leading successful lives. That story took Andrew Young by surprise and moved him. We never really know the results of our words or actions. 

Ambassador Young then told us he understood there was a middle school present in the auditorium; he asked the school to send up two representatives. It was a girl’s school made up of black, brown and white children. As the girls walked up, Andrew Young said, “I’m 86 years old, and I’ve been getting these types of recognitions for 50 years. What do you do with these things?” He said, “Here’s what I do with them,” and he presented one of the girls with the large engraved glass obelisk he was being given, and the other girl the large plaque with pictures. He said: “Take these recognitions to your school, and find an appropriate spot to display them, as a reminder that the quest for equal justice and equal opportunity; and the battle to clothe the naked and feed the hungry is not a day-long or a year-long battle, but that it is a life-long commitment.” The girls gave Andrew Young a kiss on the cheek and walked away beaming with the school’s new reminders. 

It was a sad weekend, recalling the death of Dr. King, and it was also a hopeful weekend thinking about the message of Andrew Young. Over all, the King Day celebration was a valuable reminder that, as Ambassador Young said, the arc of justice is long, and over time bends towards more rights for people, not less.

Whatever path we took to bring us to the law, it is an honor to be a lawyer and fight for the rights of our clients, both in the fields of civil and individual rights, and in battles that have nothing to do with either. The profession gives us the ability to have a really good life for ourselves and our families, but with that comes important responsibilities to use our experiences and skills to do the right thing. Few lawyers will find themselves in the role of a civil rights leader like Ambassador Young, but none of us have to look very far to find the opportunities to make this world a little better.  Once in a while we just need a reminder. 

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Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column of the Levison Group. Mark Levison is a member of the law firm Lashly & Baer, P.C. Contact Under Analysis by e-mail at comments@levisongroup.com.

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