Who says being a lawyer is always boring? On April 21, 1965, the New York City Bar Association main meeting hall in midtown Manhattan was jam-packed with lawyers waiting to hear from Martin Luther King, Jr. More than 500 were in attendance, and another 3,000 were turned away when the civil rights leader made his first visit to New York City since the legendary march on Selma, Alabama.
The City Bar, first organized in 1870 in response to the judicial corruption of Tammany Hall, has always been more liberal than the American Bar Association, which was still murky on civil rights legislation a year after LBJ’s passage of the Civil Rights Act. In fact, King notes in his remarks that this is his first address to any Bar association.
King’s speech was largely effusive in its admiration for lawyers and the legal system, but acknowledged the law’s limitations: “Justice at times proceeds with a halting gait, that at times the law has been slow to speak for the poor, the oppressed, the unpopular, the disfranchised.”
Revisiting a theme that he had explored in his Civil War Centennial address, King lamented that “lawlessness stalks in altogether too many sections of the Southland.” King’s message frames hostile white southerners misusing state power, not civil rights protesters, as the culprits disobeying the law. Hence the march on Selma, where such few blacks were permitted to register to vote. King was precise and eloquent in contrasting the moral standing of marchers’ disobeying unjust laws and the “lawlessness of the segregationist.”
King also questioned what more needed to be done to enforce laws, given the impotence of post-Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation efforts. His conclusion that the nation’s 260,000 lawyers (now 1.3 million) had a particular obligation to fight injustice is one that many law schools take to heart rhetorically, even as they remain factories for the corporate sector. King closed with what had become a go-to line that called for further struggle without discounting past victories, “Lord, we ain’t what we ought to be. We ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we are going to be. But thank God we ain’t what we was.”
The Bar’s website includes a fascinating question and answer with King after the speech: follow this pdf to page 19.
To learn more about MLK’s most important moments in New York City, check out this post from MLK Day.