Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.
I was honored to be a part of the Champions of Change and join a discussion at the White House with other public interest lawyers who have dedicated their lives to closing the justice gap in America. Our discussion was wide-ranging and fruitful, focusing on the role of the legal profession in shaping political discourse and public policy in our nation.
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.
During the civil rights movement, a generation of lawyers and advocates came to Mississippi from across America to lend their time and talent to the heroic struggle for equality. It made an indelible impact on our nation’s laws, politics and culture. We have become a more fair and just nation because of it.
But the truth is, while Mississippi was at the heart of the movement, its promises were never fully realized. Mississippi remains a state where racism and inequality are a fact of life. 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.
While it is no secret that a disproportionate number of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens live in our state, we are not unique. Nationwide, the economic crisis has dramatically increased the number of people threatened with or harmed by foreclosures, evictions, unemployment, inadequate schools and no access to medical care.
Nor is Mississippi unique in its need for advocates who can fight for policies and programs that make it possible for disadvantaged people to gain access to justice. In Mississippi, we recently won a suit that restored $132 million in Hurricane Katrina-related aid to low-income and minority homeowners who were unjustly denied help repairing or rebuilding homes. But natural disasters are not even close to the primary threat to housing. The number of Americans who may lose their homes to foreclosure remains at record levels in our state and across the nation. All of these Americans – from all walks of life – deserve protection, justice and a roof over their heads.
Today, 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. 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.
Martha Bergmark, the founder and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice, a nonprofit, public interest law firm dedicated to advancing racial and economic justice in Mississippi.