LDF mourns the loss of civil rights attorney, law professor, and former LDF Counsel Leroy D. Clark. Mr. Clark passed away last week in Washington, D.C. He was 85 years old.
Mr. Clark was born on April 27, 1934 in New York, New York. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the City College of New York in 1956 and earned his law degree from Columbia University in 1961. He spent his early legal career at LDF, serving as a staff attorney from 1962 to 1968 — during the height of the civil rights movement.
In his first few years at LDF, Mr. Clark primarily worked in Florida, handling several school desegregation cases, along with others related to fair employment and criminal justice reform. He also partnered with local attorneys across the state to file suits to desegregate businesses, including restaurants, hospitals, parks, and a barbershop.
In the mid to late 1960s, Mr. Clark played an integral role in LDF’s civil rights work, serving alongside former LDF Director-Counsel Jack Greenberg to represent some of the most prominent and history-making civil rights icons and activists of that era.
“Leroy Clark was involved in representing civil rights activists at the some of the most critical moments of the civil rights movement,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, LDF’s President and Director-Counsel. “He was just a few years out of law school when he was entrusted by then-Director-Counsel Jack Greenberg with handling some of LDF’s most important work, including the development of LDF’s portfolio of cases that directly focused on the intersection of poverty and race. He was a leader in the academy for decades and remained dedicated to the issue of justice and equality that he advanced as an LDF lawyer.”
Indeed, Mr. Clark was the supervisor of legal representation during LDF’s partnership with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign, a weeks-long 1968 protest to secure economic justice and equality for people of color. In this role, Mr. Clark helped put together a comprehensive plan for LDF staff and volunteers to assist in carrying out campaign directives, something which former Director-Counsel Greenberg highlighted in his book, Crusaders in the Courts. Beyond his work with the Poor People’s Campaign, Mr. Clark also provided legal support for protesters during many other historic civil rights demonstrations, including the Mississippi Freedom Rides, the Selma marches, and the St. Augustine movement, among others.
During a 1964 interview with the California radio station KPFA, Mr. Clark reflected on his work as an LDF attorney providing counsel for protesters in St. Augustine, shedding light on the horrific conditions endured by civil rights activists and on their urgent need for legal assistance at the time.
“There were the usual kinds of harassment arrests [of activists] for breach of the peace, disorderly conduct, [and] perjured assault charges, and we undertook the defense of all of these cases,” Mr. Clark told the station.
“In one instance, [we fought in federal court] to stop police brutality in the jails,” Mr. Clark continued. “The civil rights demonstrators were being thrown out into the hot sun … [when] the temperature was ranging between 99 and 100 degrees. They were put out in the hot sun, given warm water to drink, little bread, [and] men and women were thrown into this pen together. A little small hole was dug in the ground and they were supposed to use this as a latrine. Some other 20 to 30 persons were thrown in solitary in rooms eight by seven feet … They would have to all stand and take turns sleeping. So, we instituted suit in federal court to stop that practice.”
Beyond his intensive work representing civil rights activists, Mr. Clark also helped conceptualize and develop LDF’s National Office for the Rights of the Indigent (NORI) during his tenure. LDF created NORI to coordinate the work of government legal services offices and to advocate for laws to ensure that the judicial system does not discriminate against impoverished individuals. Through NORI, Mr. Clark worked on cases related to employment, capital punishment, housing discrimination, and consumer fraud.
NORI’s mission was deeply important to Mr. Clark, who would later publish an extensive article in the Marquette Law Review reflecting on the vast disparity in quality legal representation and case outcomes for wealthy versus impoverished individuals.
“The distance between the quality of representation that a wealthy person (or corporation) receives in a criminal case and that received by an indigent person is scandalous,” he wrote. “One need only contrast the careful, meticulous, successful representation that any number of high profile, wealthy defendants have had with the consistent reports of the overburdened and underfunded public defender and assigned counsel programs for indigents to see that we are failing to provide equal protection of the law to all individuals.”
William (Bill) Robinson, a professor of law at the University of the District of Columbia Law School, former General Counsel to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and former LDF Assistant Counsel, reflected fondly on Mr. Clark’s tenure at LDF. “Leroy Clark made many invaluable contributions while at LDF. I will always remember and be grateful for the thoughtful supervision that he gave me and other young lawyers when we joined the staff,” he said. “His tutelage was especially helpful when we appeared before difficult District Court judges like G. Harold Carswell.”
In 1968, Mr. Clark transitioned from LDF, beginning what would eventually become a long and esteemed tenure as a professor of law. He commenced his teaching career at New York University (NYU). Mr. Clark became the law school’s first Black tenured faculty member in 1974 and he taught at NYU until 1979. He then served as a general counsel at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for two years before moving back to academia in 1981. That year, Mr. Clark became a professor at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law. He retired from this role in 2006, following nearly 40 years of service to the university and his students. In 2007, the university made him a professor emeritus.
Throughout his legal career, Mr. Clark was also an active member of many organizations and societies. He was the founding member of the National Conference of Black Lawyers, a legal association created to secure and protect economic, social, and political equality for Black Americans. Moreover, Mr. Clark also served as a consultant for the Legal Services Corporation, an arbitrator for the American Arbitration Association, and a member of both the Personnel Appeals Board (GAO) and the Public Employee Relations Board. While on faculty at Catholic University, he also held visiting professorships at the University of Maryland’s and Georgetown University’s law schools and served as a general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
As a lawyer, Mr. Clark dedicated his career to protecting the rights of racial justice activists fighting to forever change the trajectory of this country – and was an integral part of this history-making movement himself. And, as a law professor, Mr. Clark shared his extensive knowledge of the legal system with classrooms full of students for nearly four decades, creating a legacy that will surely live on through the young people he mentored and guided as they made their first forays into their own legal careers. Mr. Clark’s loss is deeply felt by LDF and the legal community, and we offer our most profound condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues. A memorial service for Mr. Clark will be held at the Columbus School of Law at Catholic University on April 19, 2020 at 2pm.