UNDER ANALYSIS: Pieces of the American journey

By Mark Levison, The Levison Group

It is impossible to separate the texture and trajectory of America from its laws and systemic march towards actualization of individual and group freedom. The country’s time line is replete with markers evidencing this historical journey: the Declaration of Independence; the Constitution and Bill of Rights; the Missouri Compromise; the Emancipation Proclamation; the Civil War, Plessy v. Ferguson; Brown v. Board of Education, the 14th and the 19th Amendments; the 1848 Woman’s Rights meeting in Seneca Falls, N.Y to the struggles of Susan B. Anthony to Gloria Steinem; the organizational efforts of W.E.B. DuBois to Martin Luther King, Jr.; Shelley v. Kraemer to Green v. County School Board of New Kent County. The American story is a tapestry of struggle and growth through activism, laws and court decisions.

My father was no more a hero in WWII than most young men who enlisted to aid their country — but he flew 35 missions over Germany — and that experience, as a young man, shaped his perspectives on America, freedom and defending our way of life. When I heard his frequently told stories, he was a hero to me. Long before I became a lawyer, I was a college student in Washington D.C. It was a time of change and conflict. Discussions with my war veteran father were not easy in the 60’s and 70’s, as I, and many of my generation, began questioning American foreign policy, and joining civil rights movements such as those led by African Americans and women.

One of my roommates was the head of the local chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (“SDS”). Meanwhile, I worked as a Capitol Hill staffer, and speech writer for U.S. Sen. Stuart Symington. In those days, politics, law and civil rights, more than ever, were intertwined, intense and personal. I remember flying home on spring break in 1968. Sitting on the runway at Washington National Airport, I could see smoke bellowing up from the nation’s capital as some of our citizens found an unusual way to protest the assassination of Dr. King.

It was a time of transition, and the years that followed were tumultuous. I will never forget standing on the top step of the Lincoln Memorial singing “We Shall Overcome.” The man whose left arm was around my waist was Ralph Abernathy, the civil rights leader who became the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference after Dr. King, and who was next to Dr. King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Also on that balcony were Jesse Jackson, whom I have since met on a couple of occasions, and a youthful political strategist named Andrew Young.

 Early on, it’s difficult to see the road ahead and who we will meet on that road. In Andrew Young’s early years, he was a pastor of a church in Marion, Ala. As a believer in Gandhi’s concept of non-violent resistance, he became a friend of, and strategist for, Dr. King in places like Birmingham and Selma, Ala. Young went on to become a congressman from Georgia’s 5th District — the first African American since Reconstruction to be elected to Congress — Mayor of Atlanta, and Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations.

Some years ago, I was asked to join the board of our city’s Urban League. I accepted the call to service, cognizant of the fact that anyone lucky enough to be a lawyer in America owes a significant debt to the society that gave him or her that opportunity. I’m not alone in that belief, and one of the facets of the American Bar that is frequently overlooked in the midst of lawyer bashing is the degree to which many lawyers are involved in their communities, organized charities, individual pro bono work, and societal issues. Needless to say, lawyers are often on opposite sides of political movements. One lawyer might be active supporting what she perceives as second Amendment right to bear arms with an NRA-type agenda, or she might be active in Jim and Sarah Brady’s campaign to prevent gun violence. In each instance, these individuals are using the opportunities that have been given them, and the lessons they have learned, often through American law, to contribute to America in their own unique way.

As a civil rights organization, the Urban League has a particular emphasis on economic empowerment. I have served as the general counsel for the Urban League for the past 6 years. Although feeling like I am 17, I am aware of the fact that it has now been 40 years, or so, since I stood with Ralph Abernathy on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This week, Andrew Young will be the featured speaker at the Urban League’s annual dinner. I’ve been thinking about what it will be like to look into the eyes of a man who started his life’s work as a small congregation pastor in the rural south, stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968, and argued for America as our ambassador to the United Nations. It’s hard to know what life will bring.

One thing is evident, however, with every freedom won for a member or group within our society, we learn of persecutions yet unremedied and of barriers to equal opportunity not yet removed. The inexorable march toward freedom is within the DNA of our nation, and there will be more memorable days down the path ahead. It may not be a view from the mountaintop, but it’s a worthwhile view nonetheless.
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Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column of the Levison Group. Mark Levison is a member of the law firm of Lashly & Baer. Contact Under Analysis by e-mail at comments@levisongroup.com.
© 2014 Under Analysis L.L.C.

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