Fifty Years After ‘Freedom Summer,’ Reasons to Celebrate – and Lament

By leveling the playing field in the justice system, civil legal aid honors the American values and spirit embodied in the Freedom Summer of 1964.
Op-Ed (Mississippi, RURAL)

Martha Bergmark
National Law Journal, ALM
July 14, 2014
Link to story (subscription required)

Tags: Benefits of Legal Aid, Civil Rights, Funding: Federal, Legal Needs, Minorities: Racial/Ethnic, Prisoners Rights

Organizations mentioned/involved: North Mississippi Rural Legal Services (NMRLS), Voices for Civil Justice


My first legal job was as a summer intern at one of the first federally funded legal aid programs, North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, in Oxford. I counted fire hydrants and streetlights on both sides of the track in the little Delta town of Sunflower, preparing for one of the early municipal-equalization cases. I also helped develop the evidentiary support for successful challenges to the all-white jury pool in Tate County and the brutally unconstitutional conditions and practices of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

Today, we can look back and celebrate that legal apartheid was defeated, in part through federal support for civil legal aid.

But about that unfinished business: Because of policies that promote mass incarceration, the disproportionately African-American prison population has grown exponentially in Mississippi and around the country. Inequality of income and wealth exceeds that of the robber baron era. Federal funding for legal aid — one of our most effective programs to alleviate poverty and combat inequality — peaked in 1981 and has since declined drastically. State and national studies continue to document a dire crisis, with an estimated 80 percent of the legal needs of our nation’s most vulnerable people going unmet.

But none of us is giving up without a fight — least of all civil legal aid lawyers, who are still on the front lines in ensuring fairness for all in the justice system. Despite the funding shortfall, civil legal aid today encompasses more diversified activities and players than ever before. State and local governments have stepped up with funding, as well as procedural reforms that improve access to justice for low- and middle-income people. Private attorneys provide critical pro bono support, and law school clinical programs supplement the efforts of nonprofit legal aid providers. Innovations such as court-based self-help centers and easy-to-access forms are benefiting the civil justice system.