Ida B. Wells and the Sense of Justice (From the President)

I admire journalist Ida B. Wells because she was a fighter. The goal she fought for – fair trials – is what criminal defense lawyers fight for every day when standing alongside the accused.

Access to The Champion archive is one of many exclusive member benefits. It’s normally restricted to just NACDL members. However, this content, and others like it, is available to everyone in order to educate the public on why criminal justice reform is a necessity.

It takes a special spark to ignite a lifelong passion for criminal defense. For many criminal defense lawyers, this process is preordained by our earliest life experiences.

My parents were born into the South in the 1930s — the heyday of hate and Jim Crow. My father’s vivid stories of the injustices he and others experienced while growing up in Mississippi are part of the oral history of my family. Emmett Till and the Scottsboro Boys were more than newspaper headlines; they were the reality of growing up Black and male in the South. My father used to say that justice was a mockery for Blacks in the South. No less defining for me were my mother’s vastly different experiences when she left the South and moved to the Ida B. Wells Housing Projects on the South Side of Chicago.

The housing projects where my mother grew up were named for one of the most courageous women ever to tackle injustice. Ida B. Wells was an African American teacher and journalist born during the Civil War to former slaves. In 1884 a train conductor in Memphis physically removed her from a train when she refused to move back to the segregated car. Wells filed a lawsuit against the railroad and won a $500 settlement, but the state supreme court reversed the award, stating that her intention had been to cause difficulty for the railroad. She wrote an article about the incident, and its success influenced her to leave behind her job as a teacher and become a journalist. She became the co-owner of a newspaper in Tennessee. Later she moved to Chicago and continued writing about injustice, eventually marrying a lawyer and working as a probation officer.

I admire Ida B. Wells because she was a fighter. The defining moment of her life came in 1892. Three of her friends opened the People’s Grocery Company in Memphis. As the store began to take customers away from competing white business owners, a group of angry white men attacked the store. Her friends fought back and the police arrested them — on the pretext that they had incited a riot. A lynch mob broke into the jail, dragged the three out of town, and killed them all. For the rest of her life, Ida B. Wells was a fearless anti-lynching crusader, an advocate for what she called “fair trials in courts of law.”

The goal Ida B. Wells fought for — fair trials — is what criminal defense lawyers fight for every day when standing alongside the accused. We are crusaders against arbitrary justice. Wells used her pen as a sword to fight for justice, but we fight with a sword that is more powerful — the law. Society pays a high price when the mob mentality crushes the rule of law and the sense of justice. The mob mentality is still at work in contemporary times; it has a very real impact on the community.

It is the commitment to the sense of justice that binds the members of NACDL. Most people do not understand that the sense of justice is not always defined by the outcome. Of course, all defense lawyers want the best outcome for their clients, and efforts on behalf of clients often bear fruit. Members of NACDL are some of the most remarkable lawyers, winning unbelievable cases on a daily basis. But the sense of justice is something much bigger. It is the process itself. And without the defense attorney as a fiercely devoted, passionate advocate, the process is unjust. It is unfair. It is nothing but a legal lynching.

For many clients, the defense lawyer might be the first person in their lives who gives them the respect to which every person is entitled. I have been in the situation in which clients looked at me and could not believe that I addressed them as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” (regardless of the nature of the accusations). This is merely a morsel of the respect that allows clients to have a voice. For all clients — whether prominent in business or living a middle class life or mired in poverty — we are there to ensure they are not alone at the lowest moments of their lives.

Criminal defense lawyers stand with clients to challenge the assumptions, presumptions, and prejudices that often fuel an allegation. Defense lawyers do this to ensure a process that is fair — a process that is not a lynching.

At the end of the day, the criminal defense lawyer is the face of justice. For more than half a century, NACDL has been a leader in training lawyers and a powerful voice for reform across the entire spectrum of the criminal justice system. NACDL fights not only for individual freedom, but to serve as a reminder to the engine of prosecution that no person is without humanity and that no act — whether alleged or actual — extinguishes the possibility of redemption and rehabilitation.

Like my hero Ida B. Wells, I fight for justice. She used the words in her newspaper and in speeches; I use the words in my pleadings and arguments before the court. One of my favorite Wells stories occurred in 1917 when she traveled to Washington, D.C., to march with other Illinois representatives at a suffrage parade. Wells was told that white Southern women would not agree to march in an integrated line and that she must march in the back with other women of color. Wells refused to be denied her rightful place. She stood on the sidewalk and, as the Chicago marchers passed, she defiantly joined them in the line and marched with them. March with me into the future with the same commitment and courage of those who came before us.

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