Living Up to the Legacy of William R. Ming, Jr: A Commitment to Civil Rights and Social Justice

 Dertesia Pitts and Urie Clark, of the Cook County Bar Association

Dertesia Pitts and Urie Clark, of the Cook County Bar Association

William R. Ming, Jr.  was a trailblazer, a central – and some would say unsung – figure of the Civil Rights Movement, and one of the greatest legal minds in the last century. During his career as an attorney, Mr. Ming shaped the legal strategy for groundbreaking cases such as Brown vs. Board of Education (which outlawed codified school segregation) and defeated trumped-up charges alleging tax evasion brought against Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He dedicated his life to fighting the injustices of segregation, civil rights abuses, and housing discrimination, and much more. 

Mr. Ming has been an inspiration to me and many other aspiring and practicing attorneys whose work focuses on social justice and civil rights.  That said, it was one of the highest honors of my life to have recently been presented the William R. Ming, Jr. Award for civil rights work by the Cook County Bar Association at its Annual Awards and Installation Banquet in Chicago last weekend. 

Since I received the award, I have been thinking about Mr. Ming’s work, the civil rights challenges of his time, and where we are now as a country, as it relates to racial and class equality. It is undeniable that we have seen advances in large part because of the work of Mr. Ming and other social-justice minded attorneys. But while the needle of progress has moved toward more racial and class-based equality, many of the battles Mr. Ming waged have not yet been won. 

While it is no longer legal to codify race-based segregation in public schools, many of the nation’s schools remain deeply segregated, with less resources going to schools that serve low-income students, many of whom are black and brown children. Likewise, banks and the federal government are no longer able to have written policies banning lending to black and brown borrowers, but racial segregation in housing persists, decades of which has resulted in lower property values in minority communities and subsequently less property tax dollars funneled to public schools in those neighborhoods.

Mr. Ming was an exceptional man, by any measure. He overcame barriers to racial and educational opportunities, he worked to fund and ultimately earned a law degree from the University of Chicago, where he eventually became the first black law professor in a predominantly white university, he argued (successfully) before the U.S. Supreme Court, and for many other Civil Rights causes. But in his tireless advocacy he also recognized that someone, especially one from a poor and/or minority community, should not have to be unbelievably extraordinary and overcome extreme obstacles in order to earn an education, obtain gainful employment, live in a neighborhood that he or she chooses, and or lead a happy and healthy life. In short, life’s not as simple as pulling oneself up from the bootstraps. We should all have a fair shot.   

By not providing equal opportunities for housing, education and various other measures of upward mobility, we are failing to recognize a pool of untapped potential. I know this because I am from that pool. (A snapshot of my profession further magnifies this: Only 5 percent of licensed attorneys in the U.S. are African American.)

Going forward, I plan to do all that I can as a civil rights attorney to live up to the ideals of fairness and equality which were embodied in the work and struggle of Mr. Ming and his partners in action. I hope that our officials and leaders will do the same. 

 William R. Ming. University of Chicago collection

William R. Ming. University of Chicago collection