Martha Bergmark: The Interview

Published January 30, 2018

From the rural grassroots to the halls of power, civil legal aid has been her constant mission for four decades.

“I could qualify as a poster child for various eras of legal aid. I’m like a Forrest Gump figure in the sense that I’ve experienced each era of the legal aid movement.”


Introduction: Martha Bergmark has fought for civil justice in rural Mississippi and the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. Her distinguished civil legal aid career spans four decades. She has founded or co-founded four organizations, and worked at the local, state and national levels. Through it all, she has been driven by her “constant mission” to deliver on the promise of justice for all through civil legal aid. She sat for this interview in December 2016.

Question: You were not keen to sit down for this interview and talk about yourself. Why not?
Martha Bergmark: In the civil legal aid community, visibility is a not a big thing. I don’t know too many people in legal aid who are media hounds — they’re good lawyers but not in it for the public relations. We’re not necessarily Clarence Darrow types.

But we have a trumpet to sound. We need to raise our visibility. I’ve been pushing others into the role so I have to do it myself. After we started Voices for Civil Justice, I asked myself if I was ready to sound my trumpet. I decided yes, because I’m a good example of our challenge.

Q: Are you typical of legal aid lawyers?
MB: I could qualify as a poster child for various eras of legal aid. I’m like a Forrest Gump figure in the sense that I’ve experienced each era of the legal aid movement. Legal aid has existed in a few places for more than a century, but the modern-day legal aid movement began in the 1960s.

Q: How did your parents influence your vocation?
MB: I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. My parents were a huge influence. My father was Methodist minister and chaired the philosophy department at Millsaps College. Mom was a musician and music teacher. She was a southerner from San Antonio, Texas. Dad was a Yankee from Massachusetts. They ended up in Mississippi because my father got a job there. They didn’t go to Mississippi intending to join the civil rights movement, but they were active during the 1950s and 1960s.

Q: What was it like to grow up in Mississippi during the civil rights movement?
MB: I will always cherish growing up at that time and place. Between 1961 and 1966 (when I left for college), there was hardly a month without a local event. The Freedom Riders came through Jackson in 1961. In 1962, there was the integration of Ole Miss, and so on. Finally, in 1965, my own high school desegregated.

I didn’t do anything courageous like the Freedom Summer college students did. But it was all around us. I’d like to think that, even if I’d grown up in Nebraska, I would have been profoundly inspired.

Q: You’re an entrepreneur, having founded or cofounded four organizations plus one project. What gave you the confidence to start all these things?
MB: Evidently I like starting things. But my career has not been frenetic. I’ve committed years to each new venture. I feel privileged to have had a constant mission that has driven me, but to go at it in a rich variety of ways.

I credit my parents for instilling in me a certain security. My parents always made do with not much. They set an example of the courage of their convictions to take risks. I knew from a fairly early age that I also had that.

Growing up, I had a day-to-day life as an ordinary teenager. Then I had an after-hours life in the civil rights movement. If my school friends had known about that, I would have been completely ostracized.

The summer after junior year of high school, we learned that my senior class would be racially integrated. I was called by the local NAACP chapter to meet with the first group of eight new black students in order to get to know them, which I did. I knew that to be associated with these students would completely change my life. It did.

[When my high school became racially integrated in 1965] I was called by the local NAACP chapter to meet with the first group of eight new black students in order to get to know them, which I did. I knew that to be associated with these students would completely change my life. It did.

In September, on the first day of school, I sat and ate lunch with them. At the end of the day, one teacher called me into her office and told me she was disappointed with me, and I would no longer be welcome in certain school activities. All day I had been so tense. But at that moment I physically relaxed, looked her in the eye and calmly told her, “Well, then I’ll have to live with that.” That day I learned I had the courage of my convictions, and that good things could happen from that, for me and others.

Q: You were briefly a journalist?
MB: Well, I thought I was going to be a journalist. There were certainly inspiring examples locally, such as Hodding Carter, Sr., Hazel Brannon Smith and Bill Minor.

After junior year of college, I was a summer intern with the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper. I felt lucky. It was a competitive internship that offered a possible path to a journalism career. At the Plain Dealer, I learned that to be a woman journalist was going to be incredibly difficult. I have profound respect for women of that era who stuck it out in journalism. I had a small taste.

Q: How did you get into legal aid?
MB: The other model available was civil rights lawyer. Even though I’d sworn as a graduating high school senior that I wouldn’t go back to Mississippi, by senior year in college I knew I would go back. And I did.

As a law student, I worked at North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, the state’s first civil legal aid organization. I also worked in Jackson at Community Legal Services (now Mississippi Center for Legal Services) as a Reginald Heber Smith Fellow. These were funded by the feds to shake up big city legal aid programs. We were supposed to be change agents.

Elliott and I became a couple in law school. (Note: Martha and Elliott Andalman have been married for decades and have two grown sons and a granddaughter.) Together with two other University of Michigan Law School classmates, we opened a civil rights law practice in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and called ourselves a “legal collective.” This was a 1970s-era phenomenon emphasizing interaction with the community. Today it would be called “community lawyering.” I practiced with our firm for five years doing both criminal and civil cases.

Q: Were you the instigator of the move to Hattiesburg?
MB: Definitely. I was the one from Mississippi. But Elliott and I were the first two to leave, and the firm is still there. Michael Adelman, originally from Connecticut, is still practicing law in the same office we opened in 1973. Allison Steiner, originally from Wisconsin, is still in Jackson, Mississippi, as capital defense lawyer. I had known her at Oberlin College, even before law school.

We opened a civil rights law practice in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in June 1973. We called ourselves a ‘legal collective.’ Our fire insurance was cancelled. We learned it was because we were deemed a ‘fire bomb risk’.

Q: What was it like when you showed up in Hattiesburg in June 1973?
MB: It was not as tough for us as it had been for other civil rights attorneys in the 1960s. But there were indicators that we were not completely welcome in town.

We bought a house because we knew we’d have trouble renting. A little while after we bought the house, our fire insurance was cancelled with no explanation. Through local connections, we learned we were canceled because we were deemed a “fire bomb risk.” We somehow obtained some insurance.

Another indicator was that the local bar decided to take a special vote on whether to admit us, which they finally did in December 1973. It was very controversial.

A few months later came the sharpest challenge. In late 1974, Elliott was indicted in state court on a felony charge of obstruction of justice. On top of that, the docket was cleared so that the trial would start eight days after his indictment!

What saved him was the controversial doctrine of “federal civil rights removal,” under which a state court prosecution could be transferred to federal court on the ground that the prosecution was racially motivated. Federal civil rights removal was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court soon after. But Elliott was one of the last to benefit from it. Also, the state circuit court judge who was behind the indictment retired. The new state judge had no appetite for a trumped up prosecution, and the charge was “passed to the file.” So we stayed.

Q: What was it like to be a female lawyer in that era?
MB: I started law school in 1970, which was exactly the beginning of the modern-day women’s movement. Only five percent of my law school class was women, but that increased rapidly in the next few classes.

In Hattiesburg, I was the third female lawyer out of a local bar of about a hundred. The other two had “read for the bar,” so I was the first woman lawyer in town who was law school educated. But my colleagues and I were already so different that being a female lawyer there was not a big deal for me.

I guess it was a bigger deal for others. One day an old-school, elderly lawyer was negotiating a case with me. He told me he was nervous about going to trial because he’d never tried a case with a pregnant lawyer on the other side. He managed to survive the experience.

Q: After five years, you founded Southeast Mississippi Legal Services (now Mississippi Center for Legal Services). How did that happen?
MB: In 1978, the Carter Administration expanded federal legal services programs and there were new grants available. We created the organization to serve a nine county area. I was the founding executive director.

There was not unanimous delight at having a Legal Services Corporation-funded entity there. The local bar passed a resolution of opposition, saying there was no need for creation of a federally-funded entity. But the bar was not monolithic. There was support in the bar association and even the judiciary. Pretty quickly, the program was successful and well received in most quarters.

Southeast Mississippi Legal Services 1987
“Evidently I like starting things,” Bergmark says. Bergmark, front row center, sits with colleagues at Southeast Mississippi Legal Services, the civil legal aid organization she founded in 1978

Q.You’ve worked at both the national and state/local levels. What perspective does that give you?
MB: Of course, we really need both – the state and local infrastructure, as well as the national advocacy for funding and visibility.

I had a stint advocating at the national level when we had the hope that the federal government would commit to fulfilling the promise of justice with full funding of civil legal aid. In 1987, I came to Washington, DC, to work in the national advocacy effort for legal aid. I served two stints at NLADA, first as civil division director and then as senior vice president for programs. I also spent four years at LSC, from the beginning of 1994 to the end of 1997.

My decision to go back to Mississippi in 2002 was part of that whole campaign of innovation responding to the federal funding cuts of the 1990s. Federal funding for certain advocacy went away. So the Mississippi Center for Justice was innovative. It was my return to the local level.

Civil legal aid is a national issue because there is such disparity and inequality among states. How much justice you have access to depends very much on where you live in the US. All states under-serve, but some states are grossly worse than others. It doesn’t meet the federal promise of justice for all when you have a patchwork quilt, when you cannot access justice because you live in Mississippi.

Civil legal aid is a national issue because there is such disparity and inequality among states. How much justice you have access to depends very much on where you live in the US.

Q: You seem to combine a sense of mission with flexibility about getting there.
MB: I believe in that leadership maxim, to be “tight on the what, loose on the how.” That’s the entrepreneur and problem-solver in me. When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2005, we at MCJ opened a Biloxi office and attracted amazing pro bono help. After the 2010 BP oil spill, we organized a five-state legal consortium of legal aid providers to help victims with their claims. Crisis can be an opportunity.

Q: As someone who once wanted to be journalist, how do you think about the press today?
MB: It’s great to be back interacting with journalists. Journalism is in such a state of enormous transformation, with many new ways for journalistic voices to be heard. I’m still pretty old school. I wake up to NPR’s Morning Edition. I get my New York Times and Washington Post in the driveway and read them at the breakfast table. But more and more, like everyone, I’m a consumer of online media outlets.

Q: New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman talks about an “explosion of innovation” in civil legal aid. Can you talk about that?
MB: Judge Lippman is right. There’s an explosion of creativity in both funding and delivery systems. First, federal funding has been supplemented by state and local governments as well as private philanthropy.

Second, the delivery systems are changing. The traditional model of soup-to-nuts legal representation in every situation is not going to be the answer. Some protest, in part rightly, that anything else offers the poor a lesser form of justice. But I think there are many forms of legal aid that can offer valuable assistance. Different forms of legal assistance are appropriate in different situations.

Q: What is the future of the legal aid movement?
MB: Meeting the promise of justice for all is ever more challenging, and not just for poor and low income people. Middle class people lack access to justice. As the movement pioneers new ways for the poor to get justice, the movement will play a big role in delivering justice to all Americans.

I am privileged to have been involved in so many parts and phases of the legal aid movement. Others will carry on with creativity, resilience and commitment.

Q: Can legal aid improve racial and economic justice?
MB: Civil legal aid is essential. It’s an essential tool for progress on every measure of human well being, such as access to health care, education, housing, and employment opportunity.

Civil legal aid is essential. It’s an essential tool for progress on every measure of human well being, such as access to health care, education, housing, and employment opportunity.

In a country with our history of racial discrimination, civil legal aid is a strategy to address the legacy of discrimination and inequity.

Q: What’s your advice to young person considering a career in legal aid?
MB: There’s no more challenging and rewarding way to use a law degree. Start by doing some research on your own. Get on the web and learn what’s going on around the country. Then, get your feet wet volunteering at a real live legal aid program or public interest organization and find out what it’s all about.

There’s no more challenging and rewarding way to use a law degree.

Law schools do a better job than they used to at helping with this career. Before you pick a law school, see what it provides. Once you get there, make sure you take advantage of what they offer. That can include programs during the school term, internships, and externships – for credit or pay. That experience will serve you very well when you enter the job market. There are a lot of candidates for any job, so potential employers respect any real world experience you bring, and the demonstration that you are committed to the field.

Martha and Elliott at the White House
Bergmark and her husband Elliot Andalman at the White House in 2011 when Bergmark was recognized as a “Champion of Change” for working “to address and overcome our most pressing legal challenges and live up to our nation’s highest ideals.”

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