Equal Access U-M law school graduate earns White House award


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Martha Bergmark, a 1973 graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, was honored October 13 at the White House’s “Champions of Change” awards ceremony, with 15 other public service leaders dedicated to ensuring that the poor and the marginalized have access to justice.

Bergmark, founding president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice, participated in a discussion with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Senior Counselor for Access to Justice Mark Childress and other White House officials, held at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building near the White House. The event was streamed live to students at more than 100 law schools, including U-M.

“What a thrill to be welcomed to the White House for a program spotlighting the importance of closing the justice gap in America,” Bergmark says. “I’ve devoted my entire legal career to expanding access to justice for those who need it most, so I can’t tell you how gratifying it was to sit next to Attorney General Eric Holder as he affirmed the importance of this goal. Happily, the spotlight on this issue was magnified by the cyber-participation of law schools across the country, including my own alma mater Michigan Law.

“One issue that often strikes me while discussing these issues is that it has been more than half a century since the civil rights movement and our work is not yet done.”

A native of Jackson, Miss., Bergmark grew up during the height of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ‘60s, the daughter of a Methodist minister turned college philosophy professor and his wife who were part of a small cadre of white Mississippians challenging the status quo in racial relations.

Her childhood and teen experiences – and experience as a teaching assistant in the first Head Start program in the state – sparked Bergmark’s lifelong interest in social justice. Her passion led to her participation in Vietnam War protests and women’s movements during her years studying journalism at Oberlin College in Ohio, and her decision to go to U-M Law School to pursue a career as a civil rights lawyer, spending her summers interning for North Mississippi Rural Legal Services.

“As a student at Oberlin, I decided I wanted to return to my home state of Mississippi as a civil rights lawyer,” she says. “When I began looking at law schools, Michigan Law immediately stood out as a top school and one that was ready to support my somewhat unusual career goal. With wonderful scholarship support, I enrolled at Michigan Law in 1970, a time when law schools across the country were just beginning to offer clinical programs, so I benefited greatly from participating in Michigan’s first clinic offering.

“It was a treat to be able to picture today’s generation of public-spirited law students gathered in Hutchins Hall to watch the live-streaming from the White House!”

After graduating cum laude from U-M Law, Bergmark – along with Elliott Andalman, U-M Law ’73, a Chicago native whom she met on her first day of law school and now her husband of 37 years – returned to the Magnolia State to start a civil rights law practice in Hattiesburg, where she became the founding director of Southeast Mississippi Legal Services, now the Mississippi Center for Legal Services. 

In 1987, the couple and their two sons left Mississippi for the nation’s capital where she was a leader in the national equal justice movement, and served as president and executive vice president of the Legal Services Corporation during the Clinton Administration.

Bergmark then served as senior vice president for programs at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, directing the Project for the Future of Equal Justice, a joint initiative of the association and the Center for Law and Social Policy, and funded by the Ford Foundation and Open Society Institute. Mississippi was one of three pilot states for the project, which aimed to retool the national legal aid system through innovations in technology, fund-raising and service delivery, and strategic partnerships with the private bar, law schools, courts, and community-based organizations.

In 2003, Martha returned to Mississippi to start the Mississippi Center for Justice. Named the Stern Family Fund’s Public Interest Pioneer, Bergmark received a $200,000 grant to launch the Center, a statewide legal and policy organization that advances racial and economic justice. Community lawyering – much of it pro bono – combines direct legal services, impact litigation, policy advocacy, community organizing and education, and media advocacy.

“While Mississippi was at the heart of the Civil Rights movement, its promises were never fully realized and it remains a state where racism and inequality are a fact of life,” Bergmark says. “It is still mired in poverty and registers at the bottom of nearly every national measure of well-being. This is the reason why the Mississippi Center for Justice was created as a nonprofit, public interest law firm. And it’s the reason I continue our work today.”

The Center aims to secure better futures for low-income and minority residents in housing, healthcare, education, childcare, financial security, and community economic development. Attorneys have assisted hundreds of clients with foreclosure, school discipline, special education, property title clearance, contractor fraud, housing, and small business formation, while focusing on systemic policy change.

The Center helped to form the Mississippi Coalition for the Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse, and achieved the passage of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2005, reducing the state’s reliance on training school incarceration in favor of community-based alternatives for nonviolent youth.  Advocacy also reinstated Medicaid benefits for 50,000 elderly or disabled Mississippians whose eligibility category “Poverty Level Aged and Disabled” had been eliminated. Access to healthcare remains a central focus of the Center’s work, particularly as it opens a new office in Indianola, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.

After the 2005 devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, the Center opened a Katrina Recovery Office in Biloxi and forged partnerships with national organizations, law firms and law schools. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law helped the Center conduct community legal clinics on the Mississippi Gulf Coast for thousands of Katrina survivors. The Center partnered with local and national organizations to challenge Mississippi’s diversion of $600 million in affordable housing recovery funds to expand the Port of Gulfport, and recently obtained a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of

Housing and Urban Development that restored $132 million in Hurricane Katrina-related aid to low-income and minority homeowners who were unjustly denied help by the State of Mississippi in repairing or rebuilding homes. The Center continues to be engaged in the implementation of this recovery program.

It also launched an aggressive Mississippians for Fair Lending campaign designed to reform the State’s shameful predatory lending practices. 

The Center worked with the Mississippi Bar and Access to Justice Commission to launch a statewide pro bono foreclosure prevention campaign; and also is providing legal assistance to help victims access a fair review through the claims process established in the aftermath of the BP oil disaster in April 2010. The Center organized a regional response team that included 16 attorneys from legal services organizations and others in the five Gulf States affected by that disaster. To date, services have been provided to more than 3,000 people. 

Bergmark, who also holds an honorary doctorate of public service from Millsaps College, has a raft of other awards to her name, including the American Bar Association Section of Litigation’s 2010 John Minor Wisdom Public Service and Professionalism Award. She is a former Reginald Heber Smith Fellow and the 1990 recipient of the Kutak-Dodds Prize for her civil rights and legal aid work in Mississippi.

“Lawyers in Mississippi and across America are working to advance justice for low-income and minority citizens in healthcare, racial discrimination, unfair lending practices and a spectrum of other issues,” she says. “Whether they work in privately-funded organizations like mine, in federally funded legal services programs, or in law firms that have generously provided free legal assistance to thousands of people in need – they deserve our support. How America responds to the crisis facing our justice system is a measure of our worth as a nation and as human beings.”


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