On Being a Civil Rights Lawyer in the 1960s

Fred BelinskyA Thousand Never Evers is dedicated to my father, Harvey Burg. He was a civil rights lawyer in Alabama in the 1960s. When I was in middle school, I started asking my father all kinds of questions about the fight for equality in this country. We recently sat down for coffee, and he told me more about why he decided to join the civil rights movement.

Q: Why did you decide to join the civil rights movement?

My worldview was shaped by being a Jew and learning about the Holocaust. I wondered at a young age why people could deny other human beings life and liberty solely on the basis of an identity, such as religion or race. I learned how the Jews in Europe were discriminated against, labeled subhuman, denied all kinds of rights, and killed just because of their religion.

I also discovered the sad fact that too many people who could have altered events chose to remain silent.

As I grew up I began to understand that legal segregation and race discrimination in America was morally wrong and unconstitutional. It had to be confronted as well, if America was to live up to the promise of the Constitution and to be an America in which I, as a Jew, could live comfortably.

Q: How did you first get involved with the civil rights movement?

In 1963, I became actively involved in the civil rights movement when I responded to a call for volunteer marshals to help with the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Much of official Washington was opposed to the March. There were forty or fifty of us who were trained to intervene between the people and police in case violence should break out.

None of us anticipated there would be so many people participating, and that the March would be peaceful. I remember hearing the great speeches, including Martin Luther King’s famous I Have a Dream speech, the speech by Rabbi Joachim Prinz about the justice of the call for equality, and the speech of the then young chairman, now Congressman John Lewis, about the daunting tasks faced and courage exhibited by civil rights workers in the field.

I had made a commitment to fight for civil rights.  And that summer I began to act on that commitment.

Q: How many years were you working in the South for civil rights?

I began working in the South in 1963.  From 1964 until 1966, I commuted from law school in New York to Alabama, living there in the summers and for brief periods of time during the school year. In 1966, after finishing law school, I married Mom and we moved to Birmingham, Alabama, where we lived until early 1969.

Once I moved there, within a year, Attorney Oscar Adams invited me to become his partner. He renamed the firm Adams and Burg. It was the first integrated law firm in the state of Alabama since Reconstruction.

Q: What kind of work did your law firm do?

We represented over 30,000 school children in Birmingham and Jefferson County. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act passed. But even before that, citizens were entitled to certain rights under the Constitution, which local and state government denied to its black citizens. Our law firm tried to use what was already on the books and in the new Civil Rights Act to get good teachers, textbooks, and special education services for these students.

We brought many lawsuits representing black citizens who sought equal opportunity in employment. We represented black citizens who were being charged with criminal conduct and facing all white juries. And we supported black citizens’ efforts to secure voting rights under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, fair housing under the 1968 Fair Housing Act, freedom from unconstitutional highway speed traps, non-discriminatory access to department stores and restaurants, the elimination of separate black and white payment lines at hospitals and state-run liquor stores, and equal opportunity in athletics.

In 1968, I began to assemble a lawsuit against the University of Alabama football coach, Paul Bear Bryant. Young blacks were being denied the opportunity to showcase their talents because all the recruiters were white. I knew the football team could be much better if it drew on all the talent available. I thought that was a very important case because the University had lost three games in two consecutive seasons. People were getting really worried about it. My partners and I helped the university to liberate itself by tapping into all the talent, black and white.

Q:Were there any times you felt your life was in danger?

In Tuscaloosa where the Klan was, I went to a drugstore where they were selling mustard oil to burn people who were peacefully demonstrating. So I walked up the main street of town with a big Jewish star hanging around my neck and I walked into this drugstore and said, “I’m looking for mustard oil.” I just wanted to show these guys that they were really cowards.

I wanted them to know that we knew where the stuff came from. They looked at me shocked and said, “Sorry we don’t have that here.”

When we got into my car, I realized there were several cars following me. But I never went into a town where I didn’t know several roads out. I let them follow me then I cut back into the black part of town, where I knew there was lots of support if necessary. Once Mom moved to Alabama with me, I tried to be more careful.

Q:I was born at the Birmingham Baptist Church, and I know that several years before I was born, you were involved with desegregating hospitals. Can you explain what was going on?

First, you weren’t born in a Baptist church. You were born at a hospital called Baptist Hospital! (Laughter)

That’s what I meant, Dad!

Well, in 1964, Oscar Adams and I decided to determine the full scope and extent of the services that the University of Alabama Medical Center in Birmingham provided, and the extent to which equal access to these services was denied.

New to Birmingham, I went undercover, so to speak, and posed as a journalist. What I discovered was that the hospital, which received federal funds, was violating the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution by failing to provide equal protection to its black and white patients.

For example, if you were a black child who was burned, you would only be admitted to the hospital if there was an available bed in the black ward.  If the black ward was filled and there were plenty of beds in the white ward, you would still be denied admission.

If you were black, had health insurance coverage, and were pregnant and about to give birth, you were assigned to a 16-bed ward that didn’t have any air conditioning and only had one bathroom. In the white ward, patients with identical insurance coverage were assigned to semi-private rooms with bathroom facilities and air conditioning.

When I reported the findings of my investigation to Attorney Adams, he proceeded to negotiate a settlement with the hospital under the threat of a lawsuit.

Q: Who paid you to bring these cases since many of the people you represented didn’t have a lot of money for lawyers?

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., the American Civil Liberties Union, and certain other organizations, helped pay our fees and fund the cases. In some instances to assure commitment, small fees were charged when representing individuals in their personal cases.

Q: Why did you decide to leave Alabama?

In 1969, Mom and I decided we wanted to live closer to our families who were up North. We had this new bundle of joy in our lives which we wanted to share with them–you.

Aww shucks!

Today Harvey Burg works in Boston, Massachusetts, where he co-chairs the International Practice Group of his firm, Burns & Levinson, LLP, and continues to work on behalf of justice and equality.


 

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