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Envision the World You Want to See: Center for Constitutional Rights Celebrates 55 Years

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Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer

This year, we are celebrating the 55th anniversary of the Center for Constitutional Rights.  We selected March 11 to launch this celebration of our legal and advocacy social justice work because it's the anniversary of the Fannie Lou Hamer filing, one of our first cases. Two of our founders, Morton Stavis and Arthur Kinoy, were among the lawyers who represented her in Hamer v. Campbell, a successful civil rights case Hamer brought against Cecil Campbell, then circuit clerk of Mississippi, for denying her and other Black people the right to register and vote.

The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) and its members supported the organizing of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in 1964 so that Black people in Mississippi would have an alternative to the established Democratic Party, which excluded them. In the 1964 Mississippi primary, the MFDP got more votes than the established Democratic Party, but the national party would not seat MFDP delegates at its convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Hamer and others were discriminated against by being denied the right to register to vote, and primary election results were overturned based on discriminatory election practices.

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Morton Stavis

Morton Stavis

Soon after, Stavis and Kinoy, joined by William Kunstler and Ben Smith, founded the Center for Constitutional Rights in the Mississippi Delta in 1966, recognizing that the role of lawyers was to stand with marginalized communities and speak out against oppression.

Fifty-five years later, our mission remains unchanged. Whether we are fighting racial and environmental injustice, gender oppression or corporate and government abuse, we are still standing with social justice movements and communities under threat — fusing litigation, advocacy, and narrative shifting to dismantle systems of oppression regardless of the risk. 

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Ben Smith

Ben Smith

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William Kunstler

William Kunstler

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Arthur Kinoy

Arthur Kinoy

 

We live in a world that legitimizes the systemic oppression of poor people, LGBTQIA+ people, Indigenous people, women, people of color, and other vulnerable communities through the law. But through movement lawyering, building partnerships on the ground, centering the people who are deeply impacted by harmful policies, and working toward social change, we can transform societies.

As we think about what the next 55 years will bring, we are imagining a world where no one is marginalized, where Black and Brown people are liberated, and the power of their visions, dreams, and movements are protected.

As we move through this celebratory year, join us as we dream of a radical future while honoring the wisdom of our past through our series of 55th anniversary blogs, op-eds, podcasts, and other events. We invite you to build the world you want to see. Justice takes a fight.

The Center for Constitutional Rights 55th Anniversary Blog Series


The Center for Constitutional Rights @ 55: Monell  

By Executive Director Vince Warren

The Center for Constitutional Rights’ continuing litigation in support of social movements after more than half a century since our founding is what inspires me most in our work. We recognize now what we recognized at our beginning: that the law can be used as both a tool for repression and a tool for liberation. There are almost too many examples of the Center for Constitutional Rights’ bold approach to cases and campaigns in which our clear political determination and skill counterbalanced the long odds, and we blazed new paths in legal conscience and consciousness. But I’m most proud of the stories that change the game for our clients, our movements, and the legal field, often without the celebrity that frequently accompanies such victories. Our work with Nancy Stearns in the Monell vs. Department of Social Services case is one of those stories.

Every court case begins with a story, even if that story is not what judges or the legal field choose to focus on in the end. New York City agencies used to have a policy of forcing employees who became pregnant into unpaid leave. In the fall of 1970, Jane Monell worked in Brooklyn as a social worker for the Bureau of Child Welfare of the NYC Department of Social Services. She directed a shelter for neglected and abused adolescent girls. Monell became pregnant and, when her pregnancy began to show, her director told her that she would have to go on unpaid leave at the end of that very week. Jane was furious that the City could force her out of work and income simply because she was pregnant. She decided to sue.   

Patriarchy is a system, and just as Jane was determined to fight it, so was Nancy Stearns, who had to convince Center for Constitutional Rights leadership that reproductive rights were a central tenet of gender justice. She succeeded. Nancy was one of the lawyers on the case when it was filed in July 1971. Despite an early win in 1972 when Judge Constance Baker Motley (the nation’s first African American woman to serve as federal judge) granted the case class action status, the case was dismissed multiple times by lower and appellate courts. Monell appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Supreme Court cases are not always about how the challenged policies promote, reinforce, or protect white supremacist or patriacrchal paradigms. They are sometimes about whether the court’s interpretation of the law even allows a plaintiff to have her day in court in the first place. In Monell, the Court supplanted the harms of patriarchy with a revolution in legal interpretation. In other words, it wasn’t about how pregnant employees were treated, it was about whether pregnant employees could even do something about that treatment.  

The Court’s answer was yes. 

In 1978, the Supreme Court held that cities like New York were liable for damages under the Civil Rights Act. Civil rights litigators across the country rejoiced. Roger Wilkins, writing for the “Urban Affairs” column in the New York Times a week later, exalted the decision as having an “enormous” impact on civil rights. Wilkins was right. The decision was a game changer and has become known as the “Monell claim” for civil rights litigators. Wilkins’s op-ed spoke glowingly about revolutionary innovation in civil rights law, but barely mentioned that the legal facade of patriarchy had just been pierced.

The story began with a fight by a group of women for bodily integrity. It ends as a win for those women and that movement. Although some lawyers have called Monell an “accidental landmark” because it started with gender rights and subsequently revolutionized all civil rights litigation, we know at the Center for Constitutional Rghts that there was nothing accidental about this work: Monell is revolutionary because it took on patriarchy unapologetically. 

At the Center for Constitutional Rights, we know that litigation doesn’t create social change—but we tend to think that the path to social change is paved with some very good, creative lawyering.

 

Last modified 

March 11, 2021