Legal Workers Battle for poor in Mississippi
By Joseph Delaney
Vol. 1, No. 4, 1979, pp.17-19
They came during an unusual time of the year to discuss an important issue at an uncommon location. Many did not expect a crowd of legal workers from across the nation to assemble for a conference the day after Thanksgiving in Oxford, Mississippi, a town made famous during the 1960s by its resistance to the integration of its University, to discuss the First Amendment rights of legal workers.
But they came. For as one observer put it, conditions had become much too critical to stay away. The issues discussed went well beyond the problems the host, North Mississippi Rural Legal Services (NMRLS), a legal program offering services to the poor in 32 northern Mississippi counties, and its lawyers were facing because of their aggressive advocacy on behalf of the poor. It became a question of First Amendment rights of all lawyers, paralegals and legal workers who worked for legal services programs throughout the nation. Did they have a right to argue a claim on behalf of a poor client free from federal laws and restrictions’? Did these restrictions affect the quality of service that could be provided a client? These questions had to be answered.
The issue was important to Mrs. Carlenna Pegues and residents of the Molly Barr Road section of Oxford, Mississippi. They had lived for years without municipal ser
vices that many of us have come to expect and enjoy. They have lived on an unpaved dirt road called a street. They have lived in houses with no running water. They have lived on a street with no fire hydrants or city lights. Garbage hasn’t been picked up in their neighborhood. When it rains, the community becomes covered with water. The water remains for long periods of time because there isn’t any place for it to go.
The story is illustrated very vividly in an affidavit attached to a suit (Carlenna Pegues, et. al. v. John Leslie, et. al.) filed by Pegues, an elementary school teacher with a modest income. It said: “Residents of the Molly Barr area must either collect rain water or haul their water, resort to dumping garbage in holes, ditches or otherwise hauling it to other places, build and use outside toilets and when it rains, cars must be parked long distances from their homes or at least owners must be prepared to wade in mud because of the road…”
The issue was clear to Pegues. It was a question of survival. She knew the names of the people and the organization which had successfully defended the rights of citizens who had called out for help (a Consent Decree was recently entered in the case. City officials agreed to provide residents in the Molly Barr area with water and sewer services).
So when she was asked to participate in a discussion group to discuss how restrictions on legal services workers would affect the quality of services provided clients, her reaction was predictable. She stood proudly and proclaimed: “Legal services must be supported by people who are fair minded and who want to live a better life.”
This view is one that is shared by many poor citizens who have come to depend on legal organizations like NMRLS throughout the years.
To many of them, this type of assistance is their only resort. This may explain why they are willing to fight for the survival of legal services. This may explain also why these citizens have no problems with their lawyers being aggressive on their behalf.
The harsh realities of the situation are familiar to Lewis Myers Jr., an aggressive and skillful people’s advocate. For several years while employed as an attorney with North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, he has represented community groups and citizens involved in the elimination of poverty and injustice in America. Myers is only 30-years-old and already a veteran legal practitioner.
His work has not been easy, he reports. Allegations and innuendoes have been filed against him by various local and national agencies and against several other individuals connected with the legal agency.
The content of the script reads like a chapter from a spy novel. It’s revealing and represents a pattern of harassment:
– During the height of a boycott in Byhalia, Mississippi in 1974, Myers and several other legal workers were investigated by the Community Relations Service (CRS),a domestic intelligence branch of the U.S. Justice Department. CRS members claimed they were in Byhalia protecting the interest of elderly citizens who were allegedly being harassed by representatives of the United League of Mississippi. League officials charged, on the other hand, that CRS operatives were spying on the Black community. They said that the CRS was seeking to destroy the effectiveness of an economic boycott, which was being conducted by them. The boycott was initiated following an alleged killing of a Black youth by two White policemen. It represented one of the first intensive protest efforts by the League, a highly successful grassroot community group.
-Shortly after the CRS scenario, records were made public which connected the Governor’s Office of Human Resources with using illegal surveillance methods in connection with North Mississippi Rural Legal Services. An exhaustive document, including several exhibits and newspaper clippings, was filed by this agency with NMRLS’ funding sources in Washington. The document contained an extensive list of charges against the program; ranging from an allegation that the program was representing several Byhalia citizens who didn’t meet federal income guidelines which made them eligible for assistance, to charges that NMRLS staff members were very deeply involved in boycott activities. NMRLS officials quickly responded to these charges. They were later discarded after the state failed to prove its allegations.
-There are current violations pending against Lewis Myers Jr. He is accused of violating Legal Services Corporation guidelines by his representation of clients who are members of the United League of Mississippi. These charges were filed by officials of the City of Tupelo, a northeastern Mississippi trade center which has been the center of present demonstrations, conducted by the League, since March of 1978. Charges have also been filed against Deborah Jackson and Sentwali Aiyetoro, two other attorneys.
Myers and the other lawyers cited above are not the only
victims of this legacy of harassment. They are descendants of lawyers like Michael Trister, George Strickler and John Brittain. Each at one time or the other has worked for NMRLS. Each has been treated harshly because of their aggressive advocacy on behalf of the poor.
In 1968, Trister and Strickler, who we re then professors at the University of Mississippi Law School, were fired because of their connections with NMRLS. They were later reinstated after a successful legal challenge. But both of them decided to work elsewhere. Trister became executive director of NMRLS; Strickler moved to another location.
During a recent interview, Trister, who is now a Washington attorney, said he and Strickler were dismissed from the law faculty because of NMRLS’ filing of two controversial lawsuits, one involving integration of a local school system and another challenging a state residence requirement for welfare recipients.
The case against John Brittain was different from the Trister-Strickler affair. He was arrested by police officers in Oxford, Mississippi in 1969 reportedly for practicing law without a license. This was an amusing thought to some for Brittain, a young Black lawyer from Connecticut, never really represented himself as a member of the Mississippi Bar. He had come to NMRLS as part of the Reginald Heber Smith Program, an internship for lawyers working in legal services programs. He was studying to pass the state bar. But he was arrested nonetheless for illegally practicing law. In the minds of many of his supporters, he was arrested because of his vigorous legal efforts on behalf of the poor. Brittain is now a Connecticut law professor.
Many of these people’s advocates, from days gone by, have left North Mississippi but the issues remain. The oppression still remains: people lawyers are still oppressed because of their representation of the poor.
Advocates like Lennox Hinds, former national director of the National Conference of Black Lawyers, says there are some difficult days ahead. He says that people lawyers can expect increased attack. The attacks, he says, will come “through the Bar Associations and within the courtrooms.” What about progressive groups like the United League of Mississippi which must depend on legal services lawyers to represent their interest? How do they stand? “The picture for them is even gloomier,” says Hinds. “They can expect increased attacks on the leadership which may range from arrests on trumped-up charges to vilification in the press.”
The ordeal of NMRLS is not a blues story, however. Neither is the concern of the supporters who see this struggle as part of a national effort to protect First Amendment rights of lawyers and insure quality services for the poor and oppressed. It’s a battle for justice that committed warriors are willing to wage, Myers says. The struggle is just beginning.
Joseph Delaney is the coordinator of information for the Northern Mississippi Rural Legal Services and editor of the monthly publication.