Constance Baker Motley, the great civil rights lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, was not planning to attend the now-famous civil rights March on Washington 50 years ago this month. She was exhausted. As one of Martin Luther King’s lawyers during the Birmingham campaign, she had secured his and Ralph Abernathy’s release from a squalid, scorching hot jail in Americus, Ga., where both men were detained while traveling to Alabama. Motley was among a cadre of civil rights attorneys who spent a great deal of time in county jails throughout the Deep South helping to release detained civil rights activists. Arrests during the Birmingham campaign of 1963 kept Motley and her colleagues particularly busy.
But she was finally persuaded to attend the march by her husband and by news reports of massive crowds on the National Mall. After listening to King’s soaring speech while sitting on stage, she described the march as “the 20th century’s finest hour.” Motley’s assessment reflects her evolving recognition that mass mobilization plays a powerful role in advancing the fight for equality and justice.
Without question, Motley and other civil rights lawyers first and foremost believed in the power of the law to transform America from a separate and unequal society to one that strived to fulfill the promises set out in our foundational documents. Civil rights lawyers were uniquely successful in using the law to challenge the illegality of institutionalized racism. Their victories changed the very practice of law, altering it from a tool that had mainly been used to resolve individual and business disputes to a powerful instrument of social transformation. The lawyer as idealist and as “social engineer” was born from the crusading efforts of Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall and Robert Carter, all of whom spent 25 years litigating a desegregation campaign that dismantled legal apartheid in this country.
But civil rights protests have their own unique and enduring power. Mass mobilization became as powerful a tool and as necessary a tactic as litigation in pushing America to fulfill the promises of equality. Indeed, mass marches became the standard tactic of civil rights activists and leaders, just as Southern jurisdictions were dragging their feet and engaging in massive resistance to the legal victory in Brown v. Board of Education. Rather than a distraction, as some civil rights lawyers originally feared, marches became a critical component of resistance to ongoing Southern resistance to the end of Jim Crow.
This Saturday’s rally and march at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., billed as the “National Action to
Realize the Dream March,” will commemorate the “Great March” of 1963. But it is also its own call to action at a moment of increased racial tension, renewed challenges to minority voting rights, and an intense economic crisis in African-American communities. One of the most important demands of the march this year is to push Congress to pass an amendment to the Voting Rights Act that will restore protections for voters of color removed by the Supreme Court’s devastating decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder. When the NAACP Legal Defense Fund argued the case in the Supreme Court on behalf of black voters from Shelby County, we cited an extensive, 15,000-page record amassed by Congress that documented ongoing, persistent efforts to get between black and Hispanics and the ballot box and dilute their political power. In a stunning act of “hubris,” as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote in her dissent, the Supreme Court substituted its own view about the current reality of race discrimination in voting for the evidence amassed in the record.