Spencer Tracy (as civil rights lawyer Clarence Darrow), Harry Morgan, and Fredric March in “Inherit the Wind,” a 1960 dramatization of the Scopes “Monkey” trial, in which a high school teacher is convicted for teaching Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Social movement lawyers never fight individual battles. When we fight, we’re using weapons forged through decades of struggle.

42 U.S.C. Section 1983, one of the major statutes used to fight for people’s constitutional rights, is also known the “Ku Klux Klan Act”; it was borne out of Reconstruction-era civil rights battles. The Voting Rights Act is a product of the modern civil rights movement and would not exist if people hadn’t been willing to fight and even die for it. Lawyers waging legal battles over reproductive or sexual freedom rely on the efforts of feminist and LGBTQ activists.

Consider Commonwealth v. Warren, a recent Massachusetts Supreme Court case. At issue was whether police had reasonable suspicion to stop a black man simply because he ran away when approached by officers. In concluding that more was needed, the court noted that black men, who are “disproportionately and repeatedly” subjected to police stops, might have reasons “for flight totally unrelated to consciousness of guilt.”

The court’s analysis drew upon recent reports on racial profiling that were prompted by years of movement activism. And it gave activists, advocates and lawyers a new tool to use in their battles against racially biased policing across the nation.

Donald Trump’s road to victory was paved by decades of retrenchment by forces that never accepted the gains secured by anti-racist activism. And his presidency means that some of the most important weapons available to movement lawyers are likely to lose their edge and potency.

Legislative tools may be taken away by a newly emboldened GOP-led Congress. Department of Justice consent decrees, used to curb the worst forms of biased policing, may be a thing of the past with Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Civil rights may be eroded by a Supreme Court that has already demonstrated its willingness to undercut civil and human rights complaints, even before Trump’s first appointee has been named.

It would be a mistake, however, for civil rights lawyers to give in to despair. That’s too easy an out. Our legal training is a precious resource. It comes with responsibility to our communities. There may be less room to maneuver in coming days than in recent years. But there are long and proud histories of movement lawyers fighting for change that we need to honor.

Civil rights activists fought for voting rights long before the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. When there are no legal tools that can be used to fight for justice, lawyers can create new tools. But they can only do this when working in concert with social movements.

The darkest hour is just before dawn, and, in the immediate wake of the 2016 election, things appear dark indeed. But this is a time to organize, not to mourn. Civil rights lawyers can still lay claim to the hard-fought victories of our predecessors. More importantly, we can work alongside the social movements of our time—and against the kinds of oppressive practices that Trump intends to enact.

Jonathan Markovitz is a civil rights lawyer and sociologist based in San Diego, California.


Add new comment

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.


Activists say no wall can be built that will keep them from standing together for immigration reform.

In this 1963 letter from his Birmingham jail cell Martin Luther King Jr. pushed back against the idea that civil...

From drone strikes against Americans overseas to broad surveillance powers to indefinite detention, Obama certainly...

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

Public School Shakedown

Progressive Media Project