Martha Bergmark, Civil Rights Pioneer and 2010 John Minor Wisdom Award Recipient, Talks With ABANow.org
Martha Bergmark, president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice, is a recipient of the American Bar Association Section of Litigation’s 2010 John Minor Wisdom Public Service and Professionalism Award. The section also recognized the law firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP and the Pittsburgh Pro Bono Partnership during a special luncheon at the section’s annual conference Friday in New York City.
Former New York State Chief Judge Judith Kaye was keynote speaker at the luncheon.
Named for the renowned Fifth Circuit judge and civil rights pioneer, the John Minor Wisdom Award recognizes lawyers who have made a significant contribution to the quality of justice in the legal profession and in their communities by making legal assistance accessible to people with low incomes, the disenfranchised and other underrepresented groups. The award honors lawyers from all areas of practice, including career public interest lawyers, lawyers from private firms and corporate counsel.
This year, the section selected Bergmark in recognition of her advocacy, leadership and commitment to equal justice.
A long time advocate for equal justice under law, Bergmark served tenures as president and executive vice president of the Legal Services Corporation in Washington, D.C., and later as senior vice president for programs at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.
In 2003, she returned home to Mississippi and founded the Mississippi Center for Justice, where she continues her advocacy to expand racial and economic justice. The center has taken up the unfinished work of lawyers who once provided legal support to the civil rights movement. Bergmark was instrumental in mobilizing resources to help obtain legal services for victims of Hurricane Katrina and has demonstrated her commitment to helping those in need.
We asked Bergmark to tell us more about herself and her important work.
Q: What does this award signify for you?
A: I can’t tell you how much it means to me to receive an award that bears the name of Judge John Minor Wisdom. When my husband and I began our civil rights law practice in the Southern District of Mississippi in 1973, we were litigating before the likes of Judge Harold Cox, legendary defender of the southern way of life. So we often made the 100-mile drive to New Orleans to seek recourse from the Fifth Circuit and Judge Wisdom. He is truly one of the heroes of the civil rights era, having authored many of the decisions that broke down barriers of all kinds for African Americans.
Q: What made you want to be a lawyer and go into the field of legal services to the poor?
A: My parents’ involvement in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement beginning in the 1950s and my own involvement as a teenager in the 1960s sparked my lifelong interest in social justice – a passion that led to my participation in college in the anti-Vietnam War and women’s movements and to my decision to go to law school.
Q: Tell us what makes you proud of what you do now and of your past accomplishments and professional career:
A: Mostly, I feel just exceptionally fortunate to have been able throughout my career to put my legal skills in service to issues and clients I feel passionate about. If there is one particular thing I’m proud of, it is having had the good sense to leap at the opportunity to help launch the Mississippi Center for Justice. Quite unexpectedly in 2003, I got the opportunity to put all my accumulated professional skills and connections in service to creating the Center, proving in the process that if we can begin to fulfill the promise of justice for all in Mississippi, it can surely happen in less challenged states. This adventure has proved to be the most rewarding experience of my life.
Q: Tell us about the Center and its founding. What shaped your commitment to the people of Mississippi? What was missing?
A: The Mississippi Center for Justice opened its doors in 2003 to fill a void that had existed in Mississippi for many years: a statewide legal and policy organization that advances racial and economic justice through systemic change. The Center pursues its mission through a “community lawyering” model that combines direct legal services, impact litigation, policy advocacy, community organizing and education, and media advocacy to help low-income communities and communities of color achieve their social justice goals
The Center’s founding board of directors, comprised of civil rights veterans and local community leaders, sought to continue the unfinished work of the civil rights movement in Mississippi. Although Mississippi has made tremendous progress since the civil rights era, the state remains firmly in the grip of poverty and racial inequality. Our nation’s poorest state with the highest percentage of African-Americans (38 percent), Mississippi ranks last in most human development indicators. Not since the 1980s has Mississippi had a systemic advocacy capacity, when national groups that included the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and NAACP Legal Defense Fund closed their offices in Jackson. Subsequently, Congress began to impose restrictions on LSC-funded programs that prohibited Mississippi’s legal services programs from pursuing most forms of impact advocacy. The Center was able to step into this “justice gap” and restore a legal capacity to bring about lasting change by addressing the root causes of poverty and racial injustice.
I am a native Mississippian who grew up during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. My father, a Methodist minister turned college philosophy professor, and my mother were important role models for standing on the right side of justice. They were part of a small cadre of white Mississippians that challenged the status quo in racial relations. I went to law school to pursue a career as a civil rights lawyer. After graduating from the University of Michigan Law School, my husband Elliott Andalman and I returned to Mississippi to start a civil rights law practice in Hattiesburg, where I became the founding director of Southeast Mississippi Legal Services. In 1987, Elliott, our two sons and I left Mississippi where I assumed leadership roles in the national equal justice movement, including serving as president of the Legal Services Corporation. I later directed the Project for the Future of Equal Justice, a joint initiative of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and Center for Law and Social Policy that was funded by the Ford Foundation and Open Society Institute. This project focused on retooling the national legal aid system through innovations in technology, fundraising and service delivery, along with strategic partnerships with the private bar, law schools, courts, and community-based organizations. Mississippi was one of three pilot states for the project, and by 2003, I felt an undeniable call to return to Mississippi to make the national equal justice vision a reality on the ground in my home state.
Q: What have been your major accomplishments since the founding of the Center in 2003?
A: Our early policy wins included passage of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2005, the result of an advocacy campaign by the Mississippi Coalition for the Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse, which the Center helped to form. This legislation helped the state dramatically reduce its reliance on training school incarceration in favor of community-based alternatives for all nonviolent youth. Our early advocacy also produced the reinstatement of Medicaid benefits for 50,000 elderly or disabled Mississippians whose eligibility category “Poverty Level Aged and Disabled” had been eliminated at the instance of the governor. After the Center’s successful lawsuit in federal court in 2004, the legislature passed – and the governor signed – a bill reinstating those benefits.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2005, the Center responded immediately by opening a Katrina Recovery Office in Biloxi. With a small legal staff, we made a pivotal decision to enhance our advocacy capacity by forging partnerships with national organizations, national law firms and law schools. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law was instrumental in helping the Center conduct community legal clinics on the coast that provided direct legal assistance to thousands of Katrina survivors in housing and consumer matters. In so doing, the Center realized how valuable individual client work is in building community relationships and informing policy advocacy, and we have now incorporated this integrated model into statewide advocacy efforts.
The Center quickly became the chief policy advocate for an equitable recovery for Mississippi’s low-income coastal residents and communities of color. Our attorneys have provided critical testimony at Congressional hearings on the policy failures to direct sufficient recovery funds for rebuilding affordable housing. The Center achieved policy victories by persuading HUD and the state to increase funding to address the needs of lower-income homeowners and renters, and negotiating an agreement to guarantee one-to-one replacement of public housing and no displacement of current residents. The Center also partnered with local and national organizations to challenge the state’s diversion of $600 million in affordable housing recovery funds to expand the Port of Gulfport. Although HUD ultimately granted the state’s request for a waiver, the Center generated tremendous visibility in the national media and testified before Congress about the ongoing housing crisis on the coast. In 2008, the Center, one of our pro bono partner law firms and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed a federal court lawsuit on behalf of several plaintiffs challenging HUD’s decision, and we are currently engaged in settlement negotiations.
Our most recent success is an aggressive Campaign for Fair Lending designed to shut down or restrict payday lending practices in Mississippi. One of the highest per capita concentrations of payday lending stores in the country is in the City of Jackson. As a means of building momentum for legislative reform, the Center has been instrumental in the passage of ten local ordinances in the state that have placed moratoriums on new payday lending establishments.
Q: Who do you help? What kinds of legal problems face a typical client? What are their needs? How many do you serve in a year?
A: The Center advances advocacy campaigns that are securing better futures for low-income people and communities of color in housing, health care, education, child care, financial security, and community economic development. In addition to policy initiatives, we have assisted hundreds of individual clients in the past year with legal matters that include foreclosure, school discipline, special education, property title clearance, contractor fraud, housing, and small business formation.
Q: What are some of your greatest challenges in meeting the needs of your clients?
A: The greatest challenge for the Center and our clients is a draconian policy environment in Mississippi that perpetuates structural racism and systematically keeps people in poverty generation after generation. State-based systems and structures create legal and administrative barriers that deny hundreds of thousands of Mississippians access to federal support programs and private sector opportunities that could help them build assets and financial security.
Q: What are some of your key programs and projects for 2010? Why is your work more important than ever in this economic climate? How has the economy affected those in need?
A: The national financial crisis hit Mississippi hard on both the housing and employment fronts. When the mortgage crisis swept the nation, the Mississippi Bar and Access to Justice Commission turned to the Center to launch a statewide pro bono foreclosure prevention campaign. In the past year, we have assisted nearly 400 homeowners with foreclosure matters, referring 70 to pro bono attorneys. The Center also is tackling the unemployment crisis with full force through our Standing with Mississippi Campaign challenging the governor’s rejection of $56 million in federal unemployment benefits through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Unemployment in Mississippi has nearly doubled in the past two years.
Q: Why is pro bono work so critical to your efforts?
A: The Center’s pro bono program is absolutely central to our business model and legal services delivery. We could not have achieved our advocacy successes in individual matters and at the policy level without this critical resource. Our pro bono partnerships also have been instrumental in building long-term partnerships with lawyers and law firms that have produced financial support for the Center.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, MCJ created an infrastructure that enabled us to say “yes” to the myriad offers from lawyers and law schools across the country. Early on, the Center retained a full-time pro bono counsel to manage our pro bono wish list and case referrals. Subsequently, the Center integrated pro bono partnerships into all areas of our work in both offices. Each staff attorney commits at least 25 percent of his or her time to managing pro bono relationships.
With help from the nation’s largest law firms, as well as Mississippi firms, the Center has built a delivery system featuring one of the most innovative and expansive pro bono models in the country. Since 2006, we have leveraged the pro bono talent of over 400 lawyers in 60-plus national and regional firms, generating over 60,000 hours of pro bono legal services that equal $16 million of in-kind contributions. We also have hosted over 1,000 law students who have traveled to Mississippi from all corners of the country to support our work through summer clinics, week-long trips over winter and spring breaks, internships and externships. Our staff is proud to be playing an important role in instilling a professional commitment to expanding access to justice among the next generation of lawyers.