By Earl Johnson Jr.

NOTE: A shorter and different version of this account appears in my recently published history of civil legal aid—TO ESTABLISH JUSTICE FOR ALL: The Past and Future of Civil Legal Aid in the United States (Praeger, 2014). The following draws heavily on events reported in several chapters of Scott Stossel’s excellent biography of Shriver’s life and career—SARGE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SARGENT SHRIVER (2005), while also including information from some other sources and my own personal experiences with him while he was the OEO Director and I was directing and some other sources.

Once Lyndon Johnson decided he wanted to wage and win a war against poverty and declared that war to the nation in his 1964 State of the Union address, he next had to choose a Commander in Chief to plan and execute the campaign.  After only a short period, the President  settled on Sargent Shriver, then the charismatic director of the highly successful Peace Corps he had launched from scratch three years earlier. From President Johnson’s perspective, Shriver had many pluses—among them, a proven record in taking a new program from concept to reality and a connection to the glamorous Kennedys without really being one of them.  But Shriver also had pluses for those interested in adding a legal services arm to the war on poverty, plusses no other likely choices for that position would have had.


Press conference announcing Houston Legal Services Program, April 1966: Sargent Shriver; Unknown; Clinton Bamberger (first director, OEO-LSP); Sam Johnson (Houston Legal Services); Unknown. Photo: Clinton Bamberger photo collection, National Equal Justice Library, Georgetown Law Library; photographer unknown.

Because he so quickly became a businessman after law school, it is easy to overlook the fact Sargent Shriver started out as a lawyer and always thought of himself as one.  In fact, as a Yale Law graduate he had no trouble landing a job at a Wall Street law firm when he returned from World War II after service as a naval officer on a battleship and a submarine.  It is because Sarge found little value or interest in his work as an associate serving business interests that he soon left the law firm for an editorial job at Newsweek magazine. He had the credentials for that job, too, because as an undergraduate at Yale, he had been the editor in chief of the university’s newspaper.  But he left Newsweek after a few months when Joe Kennedy Sr. asked him to look over his late son Joe Jr’s papers for a biography he hoped to see published.  That request came after Sarge’s first date with the elder Kennedy’s daughter, Eunice, who told her father that Sarge was an assistant editor at the magazine.  Soon the senior Kennedy recognized Shriver had other talents, too, and offered him a position as assistant manager in his latest business venture, the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, a failing enterprise he had recently acquired.

But Joe Kennedy Sr. wasn’t done asking Sarge to shift roles.  In the meantime, his daughter, Eunice, had taken a position in government—as head of a new Committee on Juvenile Delinquency in the U.S. Department of Justice then Attorney General Tom Clark had established.  Kennedy dispatched Shriver to “help Eunice” in her new assignment and paid his salary while he was a “dollar a year” employee serving as her deputy at the Department of Justice.   This job proved to be a nearly perfect preparation for Sarge’s future role as director of the Office of Economic Opportunity. In the year they were at the Justice Department, Eunice and Sarge planned a multi-pronged, multi-disciplinary, local community-oriented attack on juvenile delinquency.  They were impatient to put their ambitious program into action and soon frustrated by the many bureaucratic obstacles to implementing that plan. After a year, they resigned from the Justice Department—Eunice to travel and work on other passions, Sarge to become the Merchandise Mart’s director and a major figure in the Chicago business and social community.  Four years later, when Sarge was 37, Eunice Kennedy became Mrs. Sargent Shriver. From that moment on, Sargent Shriver’s fate – for both good and sometimes not so good–was tied to the Kennedys.

Fast forward to February, 1964.  After Shriver proved a loyal and effective campaigner in his brother-in-law’s presidential campaign he then  proved himself a charismatic, energetic, imaginative and highly successful leader of one of the Kennedy administration’s signature programs—the Peace Corps.  As Sarge was returning from a month long trip reviewing Peace Corps stations in Asia, he was met at the gangway by the agency’s general counsel bearing gifts—two thick briefing books on President Johnson’s new War on Poverty initiative.  This was his “draft notice” that Johnson wanted him as the general of his own personal initiative, this War on Poverty.

When Shriver arrived back in Washington, he received a call from the President informing him that there would be a news conference in a couple of days at which Johnson was announcing Shriver would be heading the War on Poverty. Shriver tried every excuse for why that shouldn’t happen. After all, he was still directing the Peace Corps and couldn’t abandon that program midstream.  Neither the President nor anyone else wanted that landmark and popular venture to falter. Johnson’s answer was short—you can run both. No matter what objection Shriver voiced, Johnson persisted. The President even tried appealing to Shriver’s pride by saying most of his advisors didn’t think Shriver was the man for the job—good at PR but not at running a program. But he, the President, was confident he was.

So, on a Saturday in early February, 1964, without having ever said yes, Sargent Shriver listened to a press conference at which he was named the man responsible for leading the nation’s War against Poverty. The next day, a Sunday, he spent all day as a draftee not a volunteer beginning the difficult task of creating Johnson’s new program.

That Johnson chose Shriver to head the War on Poverty was critical for the prospects of including a legal services component. For one, he was a lawyer while many other possibilities were not. Second, he was not a bureaucrat, as many logical contenders were.  Third, he was not an elected official or a former one, overly concerned with political consequences, which other conceivable candidates might have been.  Fourth, while he wanted local community planning and action, he was not a community action purist, unlike many who were part of the team planning the War on Poverty.  He knew from his Peace Corps experience that if he were to maintain Congressional support beyond the first year he needed early successes and ideas that would capture the nation’s attention.

The first idea to capture Shriver’s own imagination was what came to be known as “Head Start.”  That idea struck Shriver when his wife, Eunice, then involved in efforts to help mentally impaired children, told him of early intervention programs that had proven successful with that population.  If early intervention worked with mentally impaired children it should work with normal children who because of poverty didn’t get the same start as middle class children. He consulted some experts in early childhood education, asked them to work with him in designing a preschool program for the poor kids, and launched “Head Start.”

Shriver told President Johnson about this proposed “Head Start” initiative and Johnson loved it, saying they should double its size.  But how to fund that program under the legislation they had managed to pass?  Most of the available funding was in the Community Action Program section of the OEO budget.  But the “head start” idea had not originated in local CAP programs nor had scores or hundreds of those local groups flooded OEO with requests to start their own early education projects.  Yet both Shriver and the President were convinced this was just the sort of program that fit the underlying goal of lifting people out of poverty—equipping a future generation with the knowledge and skills to join the mainstream economy.

Shriver’s solution was to superimpose on the community action program what he called “national emphasis programs.”  These were to be nationally designed and promoted programs that local community action agencies were encouraged to adopt and adapt—that is adopt the basic concept but adapt it to their local situations.

This made Shriver receptive to new ideas for other national emphasis programs– which put him at odds with community action purists, many of whom were on the senior staff at OEO.  They tended to resent the “national emphasis programs” and the incursions they made in the overall CAP budget.  But it also helps explain how Shriver became so excited when he read an article to appear in his law school’s law review, written by two young lawyers and outlining a new vision for what lawyers could do to improve the economic and social prospects of poor people That article, of course, was Edgar and Jean Cahn’s Yale Law Review article, “The War on Poverty: A Civilian Perspective.” Shriver stayed up until 2 AM reading it and called the Cahns early the next morning telling them to come to his office.  Within the week, Edgar was Shriver’s special assistant and speech writer and Jean was an OEO consultant charged with the responsibility of putting together a new “national emphasis program”, a legal services program.  That program had a long gestation period–a full year before it had a director and was in operation—but from that moment on it was part of the War on Poverty.

Whether any other OEO director would have been so receptive to devoting a slice of OEO’s Community Action Program budget to a legal services program seems doubtful.  Not many would even have been willing to deviate from the community action purist position that all wisdom and all ideas resided at the local level or started the “national emphasis programs” that became the centerpiece of Shriver’s War on Poverty.  Several other such programs were to come into being—among them, “Upward Bound” which encouraged and supported low income high school students to enter college, and “neighborhood health centers” which gave poor people ready access to health care.

There is another sense in which those interested in legal services for the poor should thank Sargent Shriver for having agreed, reluctant as he may have been, to serve as OEO’s first Director.  He understood and supported the role of legal services lawyers as loyal advocates for the interests of their clients and the need for independence from outside pressures, political or otherwise.  Two incidents illustrate his commitment.

In the Spring of 1966, the grant proposal for California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) was under consideration at OEO.  As might have been expected, most rural bar associations opposed the opening of CRLA offices in their counties.  But what might seem unusual now, given the strong support the State Bar of California has given legal services programs over the years, in 1966 the Bar’s board of governors passed a resolution telling OEO it should not fund this program.   After striking out with OEO-LSP director Clint Bamberger, the Cal Bar’s then president, John Sutro, called Shriver himself to register his personal opposition as well that of the association he headed.  Sutro was not just the Cal Bar President but one of the state’s preeminent lawyers, the leading partner in one of San Francisco’s largest corporate law firms.  Sutro told Shriver that if OEO made the grant to CRLA, it would be funding one side of an economic struggle between growers and farm workers.  Shriver’s reply, “Well, If the members of the California Bar Association will stop representing the growers, OEO won’t provide lawyers to represent the farmworkers.” Sutro had no good answer to that point.  Shortly thereafter, Bamberger and Shriver signed the CRLA grant. And, a year later, the State Bar of California supported CRLA’s refunding proposal.

The second incident also involves CRLA.  In late, 1967, while I was the OEO-LSP director, we anticipated then Governor Ronald Reagan would be vetoing the CRLA refunding grant.  I met with Shriver to find out whether he would be willing to override that veto—a power he retained as OEO director under the provisions of the OEO Act. His answer was unequivocal. “If I didn’t override that veto, we might as well turn the country over to the John Birch Society.” (Shriver couldn’t have known it but he was almost prescient with that comment.  Two years later, while Richard Nixon was president, Governor Reagan assigned a dedicated member of the Birch Society, Lewis Uhler, to build the case against CRLA in order to justify the veto he exercised that year.)

Some idea of how much Shriver valued what legal services lawyers did and how much he understood the independence they needed in order to do for their clients what other lawyers do for theirs can be gleaned from what he said years later.  Looking back, Shriver was asked which war on poverty program he thought was most important.  He answered, “My favorite is Head Start because it was my idea. . . . But I am proudest of Legal Services because I recognized that it had the greatest potential for changing the system under which people’s lives were being exploited. I was proud of the young lawyers who turned down fat, corporate practices to work for the poor, and proudest of them when they dared to challenge state and federal procedures and win.”

That was the kind of War on Poverty director Sargent Shriver was—and the kind the OEO Legal Services Program needed if it were to come into existence and be able to perform its role, the role of the lawyer, in that difficult and controversial endeavor.

Earl Johnson, Jr., Visiting Scholar, University of Southern California Law School and the Western Center on Law and Poverty. He is the author of: To Establish Justice for All: The Past and Future of Civil Legal Aid in the United States (Praeger, 2014).

Johnson, who had served as the Deputy Director of the Neighborhood Legal Services Project in Washington, DC since 1964, was chosen to be the first deputy director of the Office of Economic Opportunities Legal Services Program in October 1965.  Eight months later, Johnson succeeded Clinton Bamberger in that position, and served as director of the OEO Legal Services program until July 1968.

Reflections on a Bibliography, Fifty Years Later

By Elisa Minoff

“Selected Readings in Law and Poverty” is a remarkable document. bellow_titleGary Bellow compiled the bibliography with the help of several law students in 1964, for a course he was teaching at Georgetown Law called Poverty and the Administration of Justice. At the time, Bellow was a young public interest lawyer working at the Legal Aid Agency of the District of Columbia. Bellow would later work at two other organizations funded by the War on Poverty—the United Planning Organization (a community action agency in DC) and California Rural Legal Assistance (a pioneering legal services organization serving California’s farm workers)—before leaving legal practice for academia, where he helped found modern clinical legal education.

In 32 well-organized and quickly-digestible pages, the bibliography transports us back in time to those heady early days of the War on Poverty. It reminds us that what we have come to think of as the intellectual influences on the War on Poverty amount to only a sliver of the popular and scholarly writing on poverty at the time. And it gives us a taste of the ambition of practitioners like Bellow who were considering how to use the law in the fight against poverty.


Ben Bagdikian. In the Midst of Plenty: The Poor in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.

Part I of the Bibliography, “The Elements of Poverty,” is most interesting to the general historian and reader. In it, Bellow and his fellow contributors list some of the most influential works on poverty from the early 1960s. Notably, the list does not stop at Michael Harrington’s The Other America or Ben Bagdikian’s In the Midst of Plenty. Bellow wanted to stimulate “law students in becoming more concerned with the legal problems of the poor and the urban condition,” as he wrote in the introduction. Accordingly, the selections tend to focus on the underlying causes of poverty, especially urban poverty, and the structural conditions that account for its persistence. Subsections on politics, race, class structure, and psychology include works by Saul Alinksy, Seymour Martin Lipset, Herbert Gans, Oscar Lewis, Ralph Ellison and Charles E. Silberman. These books were not low-circulation editions read by a handful of academics and poverty experts, but trade (and in some cases mass-market) paperbacks that became part of the larger public discourse about contemporary social problems.


Oscar Handlin. The Newcomers. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959.

As a historian of migration and social welfare, I was particularly excited to see Oscar Handlin’s The Newcomers listed among the “General Considerations.” Handlin was a prolific historian of immigration who had written the pulitzer-prize winning The Uprooted in 1951. In the late 1950s, he had turned to the study of contemporary internal migration. In The Newcomers, Handlin chronicles the experiences of Puerto Ricans and African Americans who had recently moved to New York City. When Handlin published The Newcomers, popular commentators had begun to blame migrants for the struggles of America’s inner cities, and social workers had come to believe that helping migrants “adjust” or “assimilate” to urban life was a prerequisite to solving urban poverty. Migration, in other words, was very much a part of the debate about poverty in the years leading up to Lyndon Johnson’s declaration, and Bellow’s bibliography manages to capture this too.

Considering the trends in anti-poverty research over the last several decades, the subsection on “The Psychology of Poverty” is particularly interesting. Psychology is yet another subject that has been largely missing from discussions of poverty, but was very much a part of the debates in the 1960s. Historian Alice O’Connor describes the “behavioral sciences revolution” that infused poverty research in the 1950s and 60s.  During these years, the National Institute of Mental Health funded a number of influential studies and conferences on poverty. Bellows himself admitted to being especially concerned with the psychology of the poor. As he observed in a fascinating interview in 1964: ”It seems to me that poverty is something more than just economic deprivation. It seems to be characterized by a psychological dimension, a feeling of hopelessness, of powerlessness, of an inability among the poor as we call them to belong to any institution or feel a part of our society.” (Bellows and others involved in the legal services movement, believed that the law could help the poor combat this feeling of powerlessness bring them into the fold of American society.) In later years, anti-poverty activists became disenchanted with psychology as a subject that could help explain poverty’s persistence and gravity. After decades of marginalization, however, psychology is once again a part of the discussion, as researchers have started to unveil the long-lasting repercussions of phenomena like poverty-induced toxic stress in early childhood.


Oscar Lewis. The Children of Sanchez: Autobiography of a Mexican Family. New York: Random House, 1964.

(As a footnote on the subject of psychology and poverty, Bellow includes Oscar Lewis’ book, The Children of Sanchez, in the list of works on psychology. In this book, Lewis develops his idea of a culture of poverty—another concept that has recently enjoyed something of a rebirth).

What is most notable about Part II of the bibliography, “The Legal Problems of the Poor,” is how broadly Bellow conceived these problems. Among the legal problems of the poor highlighted in the bibliography are housing issues, such as urban renewal and relocation, zoning, and landlord tenant disputes; consumer protection issues, such as loan and debt problems and purchasing on credit; criminal justice issues, such as arrest and the right to counsel; as well as, to randomly select just a few: juvenile delinquency, unemployment compensation, and discrimination. Part II, which primarily consists of law review articles, includes much more technical works than Part I, which is populated with books by academics, journalists, and activists written for a general audience. But the technicality does not suggest narrow or small mindedness. Poverty law, a la Bellow, addressed any and all issues that arose in the everyday lives of America’s poor. It was far more than the law of public assistance benefits.

Bellow’s bibliography poses something of a challenge to scholars concerned with poverty today: to think broadly, and ambitiously, about the problems of the poor, and to circulate our ideas widely so that they too may become part of the public discourse—fifty years after the War on Poverty.bibliography_quote1

About the author: Elisa Minoff is a political and legal historian, who will be teaching as an Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Florida beginning in the fall of 2014. She has  conceptualized and developed the collaborative War on Poverty bibliography, which is available as a google doc.

More information about the bibliography can be found on NEJL’s War on Poverty — Legal Services Resources Center website.

Other related resources:

Selected Readings in Law and Poverty,” prepared by Gary Bellow for a seminar at Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and the Administration of Justice taught in 1964-1965.

Interview with Gary Bellow on the Role of the Lawyer and the Problem of Poverty by Richard D. Capparella, District Roundtable, WWDC, May 9, 1964. Gary Bellow collection, NEJL. Reformatted vinyl recording is available as a streaming mp3 file at:

Event: UDC Law Review 2014 Symposium April 4, 2014: Overcoming Barriers to Economic Opportunity in America Today Renewing the War on Poverty Fifty Years Later

Friday, April 4, 2014
11:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m.
UDC David A. Clarke School of Law
4340 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Room 518
Washington, DC 20008

The Honorable Thomas E. Perez
Secretary, U.S. Department of Labor
22nd Annual Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. Lecturer

Event description:

 In declaring the War on Poverty fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson summoned the Nation to eliminate “barriers to full participation in our society” and strive to give each and every American a “fair chance to develop their own capacities.”  In recognizing the Fiftieth Anniversary of that bold but unfinished task, the UDC Law Review has gathered leading policy and legal experts for this full-day symposium that explores new ways to combat the root causes of poverty in the U.S. today that continue to impair economic opportunity and mobility for many Americans.  The Symposium broadly addresses barriers to economic equality and mobility in contemporary America, and ways to overcome those barriers.  Noted policy and legal experts will present papers and ideas in discussion panels focusing on the following areas (some panels subject to modification):
Access to Justice for the Poor (estimated start time:  5:00 p.m.). Featuring:

*  James S. Sandman, President, Legal Services Corporation

*  Peter B. Edelman, Director, Georgetown Law, Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy;

*  Jonathan M. Smith, Chief, Special Litigation Unit, Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice;

*  John C. Brittain, Professor of Law, University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law

Inequality in Education, Health Care and Housing, including the impact of unaffordable housing on families of the District of Columbia (start time to be determined and precise speakers subject to possible modification).  Featuring:

*  Edgar S. Cahn, Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Law, University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law

*  Marta Beresin, Staff Attorney, Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless

*  Helen Frazer, Associate Dean for Law Library, and Associate Professor, University of the District of Columbia David A.Clarke School of Law

The Impact of Debt on Economic Mobility, including the effect of bankruptcy laws on American consumers, and proposals to address the growing problem of debt in America (start time to be determined and precise speakers subject to possible modification).  Featuring:

*  The Honorable Judge Stephen S. Mitchell, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Eastern District of Virginia (RET.) (Invited)

*  James Tsai, Attorney and Policy Professional

Proposed Changes in Welfare Policy, the need for income supplements to enhance living standards, and creating more opportunities for poor and low income individuals to join the economic mainstream. (start time to be determined and precise speakers subject to possible modification). Featuring:

*  Aleta Sprague, Esq., Policy Analyst, New American Foundation, Asset Building Program

*  Spencer Rand, Clinical Associate Professor, Temple University, Beasley School of Law

*  Joy Moses, Attorney and Policy Professional

Community Development and the Need to Broaden Access to Capital with emphasis on wealth-sharing and worker-owned pilot projects, the role of public benefit corporations and social enterprises, and examples of recent community economic development initiatives. (start time to be determined and precise speakers subject to possible modification).  Featuring:

*  Alicia Plerhoples, Associate Professor & Director of the Social Enterprise & Nonprofit Law Clinic, Georgetown UniversitySchool of Law

*  Steve Dubb, Research Director, The Democracy Collaborative, University of Maryland

*  Louise Howells, Professor of Law & Director of the Community Development Law Clinic, University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law

The Symposium will conclude with remarks delivered by
The Honorable Thomas E. Perez, Secretary, U.S. Department of Labor, this year’s
David A. Clarke School of Law’s Annual Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. Lecturer.

Additional Symposium program details forthcoming at


My recollections of working for Neighborhood Legal Services in Washington, DC, in the mid 1960s

Below is an article written for the NEJl blog by Jonathan A. Weiss, the first “neighborhood lawyer” hired by the Ford Foundation-funded Neighborhood Legal Services Project in December, 1964.  NLSP was a pilot project serving several low income areas in Washington DC which later became the OEO funded legal services program in that city. Weiss spent the next four decades in legal services including stints as a managing attorney in the DC program, as a managing attorney at Mobilization for Youth and at the Center for Law and Social Policy and then executive director of Legal Services for the Elderly in New York City. Weiss has published articles on the practice and theory for legal services attorneys, including “The Law and the Poor,” Journal of Social Issues 26:3 (1970), Law of the Elderly (1977) and “Should the Government Fund Legal Services? If so, what should the Lawyers Do?” Journal of the Institute  for the Study of Legal Ethics 2 (1999): 401-409.

In the article below Weiss focuses on his early years as a pioneering legal services lawyer in the nation’s capital, when the goals and scope of the program were being worked out. 

Earl Johnson, Jr.

My recollections of working for Neighborhood Legal Services in Washington, DC, in the mid 1960s

By Jonathan Weiss

The earliest mention of legal services in my life was in conversations with Gary Bellow, in which we agreed that criminal law representation was not enough for poor people if they had to return to poverty, which had created the conditions of crime. Lawyers had to take on representation of the deprived and oppressed economically in order to make real social progress.

I also thought of legal services as an extension of the Civil Rights movement. Voting and education rights were also crucial, but if there continued to be economic disaster for those who faced discrimination, removing some of the discrimination would not be enough.

Through Gary I first met Ed Sparer, who was then running the legal services component of Mobilization for Youth in New York, and planning to establish the Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law. (He offered me the deputy – and probably the one staff — position which I declined later). Gary moved on from Criminal Legal Aid to establish and essentially direct the D.C. United Planning organization which was to provide field offices with components to help people with housing, welfare, social work problems, and even domestic duties. In these field offices, there would also be a legal services office to work with these components. He persuaded Earl Johnson, Jr. to come to Washington, D.C. to run these legal services offices.

Earl interviewed me for a job in legal services. He asked me if I agreed with the Cahn article. I said I did not, for it seemed more of an imposition of an ideology on a community rather than representing members of the community. Earl agreed and that may have been one factor in his hiring me.

Headquarters were on 12th and U St. NW in the Negro Masonic Temple which was not used during the day. Earl asked me to write the basic articles on the ethical rules and limitations of legal services practice. Relying on National Brotherhood of Railroad Workers and NAACP v Button primarily I concluded that as long as there was a direct personal attorney client relationship with no economic preconditions and a social ideal, a structure could be provided to establish the network envisaged.

I then went to the office on 14th and Park Road, which was directed by an experienced and excellent lawyer, Gene Chase, with whom I worked closely. It became clear to me immediately that the clients that came in with grievances often did not know which ones had legal remedies – and that the major skill of a legal services lawyer was to find what was the legal issue with which he could help. Next, it was clear there were whole areas, where there were helpful, even dispositive, laws on the books (including the Constitution), but lawlessness in the poverty ghettos both in the criminal and civil field. It was also clear that poor people’s problems were often intertwined: a welfare demonstration might lead to an arrest, an eviction, loss of child, and then welfare itself. The Gordian knot had to be untied. (I was never aware of Legal Aid in D.C. except when I went to run the office at 14th and Clifton and have a legal aid lawyer assigned there, Marie Klooz).

Earl was initially concerned that not enough test cases or law reform cases were being generated. I told him that we were winning when we discovered the issues and some of the lawyers weren’t looking hard enough. (Years later when Gary Bellow went to California Rural Legal Assistance, he developed a list of 50 cases he would like to bring. I bet him if he reviewed the case files already open he would find them and he did.).

Meanwhile an education program had been set up, primarily by Robert Cipes, I believe, who had written Volumes 8 and 8A of the Federal Criminal Code commentary. Among the speakers was Herman Miller, a landlord’s lawyer, who was delighted to have us litigate against him because he then made more money than all the defaults he had taken at, I believe 50 cents each.

Important cases did start to emerge when there was no choice but to appeal or take affirmative action. Brian Olmsted helped by Bob Cipes and others brought the case which established the right to be free from retaliatory eviction (requiring a jury trial since facts were now central) so that a landlord could not evict a tenant for complaining about conditions to a government agency. The right of Juveniles to habeas corpus and bail was firmly established.

The rights of Juveniles at trials were expanded by the Court of Appeals. In a failure to move one case, the Court of Appeals held that a person wrongfully arrested had a right to swear at the policeman.

We also started handling Social Security disability cases. I think no one had ever appealed before because they had to find special officers and space. We started winning a number and now, of course, there is a whole segment of the bar that specializes in this area.

We did the same in Unemployment.

Tom Willging joined my office, fresh out of law school, but not able to practice because he was not yet admitted to the Bar. As a result, I took on a large number of consumer cases and he drafted extensive and exhaustive discovery, particularly interrogatories which allowed us to end the case with no payment for our client.

Later the National Center for Education in Law and Poverty and the Center on Social Welfare Justice and Law produced material about how to interview, disseminated form annotated pleadings, and discovery, so that these could be used nationwide. They had their genesis in Neighborhood Legal Services.

The most striking aspect was the not just the entanglement of problems, the range of issues never raised, the lawlessness, but how many people there were who needed help. (Getting referral from the Neighborhood Centers, and having them help us, mitigated this factor). One month I did 100 intakes. So I took a year off on a Fulbright in Italy before returning to New York, to work at both Mobilization of Youth Legal Services and the Center of Social Welfare Policy and Law where I started Legal Services for the Elderly which continued for over 35 years.

Related Resources:

The NEJL collections includes some of Jonathan Weiss’s papers, including a full set of progress reports on legal services for the elderly, from 1972 until 2002. The Jonathan Weiss papers also include a full bibliography of his writings.

The NEJL also holds the papers of Jean and Edgar Cahn related to legal services. Transcripts and recordings of oral history interviews with Edgar Cahn, Justice Earl Johnson, Jr. , and Gary Bellow are also part of the NEJL collections.

NEJL hosts collaborative War on Poverty Bibliography

As one of the contributions marking the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, the National Equal Justice Library has launched a collaborative bibliography on the War on Poverty. The initiative grew out of a conference on Poverty Law: Cases, Teaching, and Scholarship at the Washington College of Law in October 2013. Elisa Minoff, a political and legal historian, who will be teaching as an Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Florida beginning in the fall of 2014, has conceptualized and developed the initial bibliography. The bibliography is designed to be an ongoing collaborative effort, and Minoff encourages others to contribute additional entries, and well as annotations to existing and new entries.

The idea was to highlight some of the most enduring scholarship on the War on Poverty and to present the most recent work being done by social scientists, legal scholars, and historians on the subject. For context, Minoff included a list of useful sources on social welfare in America before and after the War on Poverty, as well as some recent analyses of the legacies of the War on Poverty. We are planning to add a section with literature covering the most significant poverty law cases in the next weeks.

The document is available as a google doc, which is also linked from the NEJl’s War on Poverty — Legal Services Resources Center website:

The bibliography can also be downloaded as a pdf document:

Periodic updates of the bibliography will be posted on the NEJL War on Poverty — Legal Services Resources Center website as pdf documents.

If you would like to contribute citations and commentary, please e-mail Elisa at elisa.minoff [at] Elisa can either give you permission to edit the document directly or add your suggested citations herself.

Attorneys General Kennedy and Katzenbach Articulated Access to Justice Vision in 1964

By Richard Zorza

[Reposted with permission from Richard Zorza’s Access to Justice Blog, original posting on May 28, 2013]

As we celebrate that we have an Access to Justice Initiative at DOJ, we should remember that almost 50 years ago the access vision was articulated by two US Attorneys General – and that it was a comprehensive vision remarkably similar to the one we are pursing today.

On May 1, 1964, Law Day, then Attorney General Robert Kennedyspeaking at the University of Chicago Law School, urged a broader responsibility upon lawyers.

As a profession we have conveniently – perhaps lazily – abdicated responsibility for dealing with major social problems to other professions – sociologists, educators, community organizers, social workers, psychologists.

Rarely if ever do the best lawyers and the best law firms work with the problems that beset the most deprived segments of our society.  With some outstanding exceptions, that work is done – if it is done at all – by the members of the bar who have least prestige, who are likely to be poorly trained, and who are likely themselves to be engaged in a struggle for economic survival. .  .  .

But we as a profession have backed away from that larger [poor peoples’] helplessness.  We have secured the acquittal of an indigent person – but only to abandon him to eviction notices, wage attachments, repossessions of goods and termination of welfare benefits.

To the poor man, “legal” has become a synonym for technicalities and obstruction, not for what is to be respected.  .  .   .

First we have to make law less complex and more workable.  .  .  .  Second we have to begin asserting rights which the poor have always had in theory.  .   .   .  Third, we need to practice preventive law on behalf of the poor.  .   .   .  Fourth, we need to develop new kinds of legal rights in situations that are not now perceived as involving legal issues.

And, on November 12, 1964 (just after the landslide election), Nicholas Katzenbach, by then Acting Attorney General, spoke at the Conference on Extension of Legal Services to the Poor, as follows, after describing typical legal problems of the poor that we would recognize today:

There must be new techniques, new services and new forms of inter-professional cooperation to match our new interest.  .  .  .  There are signs too that a new breed for lawyers is emerging, dedicated to using law as an instrument of orderly and constructive social change.  .  .  .  Experimental internship programs like those run by Georgetown Law School are beginning to infuse academic training with experience drawn from the reality of life, rather than from the disembodied “facts” of appellate decisions.  .   .  .


The proceedings from the 1964 HEW conference as well as manuscripts of several of the conference papers are included in the Edgar and Jean Cahn papers, NEJL.

One of the threshold problems in this new era is simply to make rights known.  .  .  .  Second, even if rights are known, they can protect and provide little if they are entangled in a maze of technicality, detail, and subsections.  Faced with such complexity, even the informed poor, are given the choice of walking through life with a lawyer at their side, or surrendering to the “can’t fight city call” philosophy.  Third, the protection of the rights of the poor depends upon advocacy .  .  .  .  And fourth, we must generate an understanding that law alone is no answer.  If we thought that courts were the place to resolve every dispute, we should be devoting our attention not to providing legal services to the poor, but to immediately finding thousands of judges for our courts.  .  .  .

It does not take a lawyer to right every wrong.  .  .  .  As an example, let me recall the example of a woman on the West Coast with seven children, supported by welfare.  A fire destroyed the roof of their house.  The woman was too poor to move or repair the damage.  The response of the welfare agency was to cut off her welfare payments. She was living, they said, in unsuitable housing.   It does not take a lawyer to respond to this situation, and it did not.  A young woman who heard about this case took it upon herself to become an advocate – to go to the welfare authorities and indignantly ask what was the legal authority for the suspension of welfare.  The check was issued immediately.  .  .  .  We need more people like the woman we just described.  We need what is in effect a new profession – a profession for advocates for the poor, made up of people from all professions, committed to helping those who are in trouble.  That job is too big — and I would add too important – to be left only to lawyers.

It is all there – simplification, roles for non-lawyers, law for social change, pro bono.

Without the leadership expressed in those speeches the legal services movement might never have gotten going.  And it is wonderful that the same commitment is expressed by the Attorney General and indeed the Vice President.

And it is surely now therefore overdue for us to get more such leadership day-to-day – let’s please have DOJ get a new head for the Access Initiative.

UCSB Critical Issues in America series

On Friday, Jan. 31, UC Santa Barbara will host a symposium on: “Organizing for Economic Democracy: A symposium on major initiatives of the grassroots War on Poverty and their enduring legacy for economic justice organizing today. “ The symposium is part of the UCSB Critical Issues in America series: “The Great Society at Fifty: Democracy in America 1964/2014.”

The symposium includes panel discussions on Community Action, workplace justice, and federally funded legal services. Speakers include Annelise Orleck, Professor of History, Dartmouth College; Pete White, Founder and Co-Director, Los Angeles Community Action Network; Sophia Lee, Professor of Law and History, University of Pennsylvania Law School; Steven Pitts, Associate Chair, UC-Berkeley Labor Center; Clare Pastore, Professor of Law, USC Gould Law School; and Jose Padilla, Executive Director, California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc.

More information about the symposium and other events in the Critical Issues in America series can be found at the Great Society at Fifty website:

Information about 50th anniversary events and new resources on the development of poverty

As many organizations and institutions are planning or have already held events marking the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, the Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity Initiative has set up a webpage that compiles information about events, reports and other activities “that explore the progress made for poor people over the last half century and the goals that lie ahead.”

Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, War on Poverty Resources, at:


A link to the webcast of the January 8, 2014 event Legacies of the War on Poverty: Lessons for the Future, which was organized by Spotlight, the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and the Russell Sage Foundation is available on the website as well:


The 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty has brought forth many very helpful reports and analyses. The Coalition on Human Needs is compiling them in a new webpage, which will be continuously updated:

CHN webpage:  The War on Poverty:  50 Years Later


The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Poverty and Income webpage contains numerous resources on the development of poverty in the United States, including recent analyses evaluating the War on Poverty at 50.


The Urban Institute’s Understanding Poverty webpage contains a wealth of research, including information about children in poverty.


The Children’s Leadership Council has compiled an informative overview of the War on Poverty programs that help children and youth:

Fifty Years Ago on January 8th, America Declared a War on Poverty — Without Mentioning the Denial of Justice to the Poverty Population

By Earl Johnson, Jr.

This is the first in a series of short articles I will be writing for this NEJL blog tying the creation and development of the War on Poverty during 1964 and 1965 to the emergence of that War’s legal services arm.  The narrative often will draw on my recently published history of civil legal aid, but sometimes will venture beyond that to include details I didn’t have room to include in the book.  We also expect to recruit living participants to add their reminiscences and to include excerpts from the NEJL’s collection of oral history interviews.


   But I begin today with the birth of the nation’s “War on Poverty” itself.  For, almost certainly, there would be no Legal Services Corporation today and indeed no federal financial support for civil legal services for the poor had there not been a “War on Poverty.”  Furthermore, after researching the genesis of that program for my book, I concluded that, in all probability, there would not have been a “War on Poverty” had Lyndon Johnson not succeeded to the presidency in the wake of a terrible national tragedy, the assassination of John Kennedy. 

It is true President Kennedy had asked his economic team to explore what might be done about the problem of abject poverty in the midst of affluence.  But it is not at all clear he would have mounted a significant program to do something about that problem. Kennedy’s political advisors were warning him that any program helping poor people wouldn’t gain him a single vote.  “To the extent they vote, they already vote for you.”  Instead, they advised Kennedy his administration should concentrate on initiatives that aimed to help the “middle class” because that’s where the undecided voters lived.  This is a political priority that most presidents, including the current Obama administration, have recognized and emphasized. And recall, Kennedy and his advisors believed he was facing a difficult election in 1964, so political calculations were a paramount concern.

Lyndon Johnson, however, had no such reservations. The very night he assumed the presidency he had a late night meeting with Walter Heller, the Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors.  When Heller mentioned the possibility of doing something about poverty, Johnson said, “that’s my kind of program” and moved it to the top of his agenda.  Johnson ordered his staff to begin developing a detailed proposal and his speech writers to draft a public announcement of a major campaign to eliminate poverty in the United States.  He saw his other major accomplishment, the passage of the Civil Rights legislation, as just completing another man–that is, President Kennedy’s–vision. The War on Poverty, on the other hand, was his and his alone. He hoped and expected it would be his major accomplishment and his claim on history. Beyond that, Johnson had an emotional attachment to the program. He had been born and raised in a poverty-stricken area of Texas and saw helping those people, for many years his constituents, as his cause.  Earlier in his career he had been a loyal and vigorous New Dealer, committed to improving the lives of those decimated by the Great Depression.  

Whether President Kennedy would have ignored the political calculations and eventually launched some sort of program to address the poverty problem is not clear.  But that any program he started would not have approached the scale of Johnson’s War on Poverty is apparent and thus unlikely to ever include a significant, if any, legal services component.  President Johnson’s proposal called for a nearly one billion dollar appropriation for the first year—almost seven billion dollars in 2013 dollars.  A brand new program with a budget larger than most existing domestic programs—and aimed to help people that “to the extent they vote, already vote for you.”    

So on January 8, 1964, just six weeks after inheriting the presidency, Lyndon Johnson was ready to announce his signature policy initiative as part of his “State of the Union” address to the nation.  To choose this particular priority spoke to Johnson’s political confidence and maybe his political courage. As he told the nation that evening–

                “Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom.  The cause may lie deeper—in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.

                “But whatever the cause, our joint federal-local effort must pursue poverty, pursue it wherever it exists, in city slums and small towns, in sharecropper shack or in migrant worker camps,, on Indian reservations, among whites as well as Negroes, among the young as well as the aged, in the boom towns and in the depressed areas.

                “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.

“This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”

Notably absent from President Johnson’s litany of deprivations that could cause poverty was any mention of their lack of access to the legal system. This oversight may have suggested why it was to prove difficult to introduce a legal services component as part of the “War on Poverty” Johnson had declared. But there already were those who were trying—chiefly a small group headed by Harvard Professor Abram Chayes then inside the Johnson administration as Legal Counsel in the State Department. In later articles for the National Equal Justice Library’s blog, we will trace the progress of this group and other phases of the slow movement toward a viable legal services program over the course of 1964.  But we all know the effort was ultimately successful and it is well to contrast the omission of legal services or access to justice in Johnson’s War on Poverty speech with what he was saying about the program’s contribution to that war by 1968.

“To a great many poor Americans, the law has long been an alien force—the ally of unscrupulous men who prey on their weaknesses and brutalize their rights as citizens….The Legal Services Program was created to give the poor the same access to the protection of the law that more fortunate citizens have.  It is more than a legal aid program.  It is a weapon in our comprehensive attack on the root causes of poverty….It is this enormous task that the American Bar and the Office of Economic Opportunity have undertaken these past three years.  I commend you for all you have done, and for what you have resolved to do.”

Lyndon Johnson’s ascendancy to the presidency was important to the creation of a full scale “War on Poverty.” This provided the essential foundation without which a federal legal services program could never have happened.  But that program probably would still not have come into existence but for Johnson’s choice of a certain individual, Sargent Shriver, to lead that war. The president announced that choice on February 1, 1964 and why Shriver’s selection was so critical will be among the subjects of my next article for this blog.   

Earl Johnson, Jr., Visiting Scholar, University of Southern California Law School and the Western Center on Law and Poverty. He is the author of: To Establish Justice for All: The Past and Future of Civil Legal Aid in the United States (Praeger, 2014).

Johnson, who had served as the Deputy Director of the Neighborhood Legal Services Project in Washington, DC since 1964, was chosen to be the first deputy director of the Office of Economic Opportunities Legal Services Program in October 1965.  Eight months later, Johnson succeeded Clinton Bamberger in that position, and served as director of the OEO Legal Services program until July 1968.

Related resources:  A full-length video of President Johnson’s State of the Union address on January 8, 1964 is available on YouTube (contributed by the LBJ Library & Museum):

A video and transcript of the address is also available on the LBJ Library & Museum’s website: