Monthly Archives: January 2014

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:


Welcome to our new blog!

By Alan Houseman

The National Equal Justice Library has set up this new blog for the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty to provide information about the accomplishments of the War on Poverty and on the critical role of civil legal aid programs in the anti-poverty efforts that began during the Lyndon Johnson administration and continue today.

The first blog by Earl Johnson, Jr. begins as series on the emergence of the legal services program as a component of the War on Poverty during 1964 and 1965.   It will include future postings by Johnson and others who were there at the beginning of the federal legal services program.

The NEJL blog will also include a series of reflections on how the legal services program has effected major changes in the legal circumstances of low-income Americans.  The blog will review major Supreme Court and appellate court decisions in cases that legal services attorneys brought that recognized the constitutional rights of the poor and interpreted statutes to protect their interests.  The blog will also highlight administrative advocacy that assured effective implementation of laws and stimulated regulations and policies that helped shape programs affecting the poor. In addition, it will document how legislative advocacy helped the poor redress grievances that courts could not address. Finally, and just as important, the blog will discuss how representation before lower courts and administrative bodies helped individual clients enforce legal rights and take advantage of opportunities to improve their employment, income, education, housing, working and living conditions.

Another component of the blog will include references to scholarly publications as they are available, and announcements of and reports about events and programs relating to the 50th Anniversary that are to be held during the anniversary year.  We will also include descriptions of resources about the War on Poverty from the NEJL collections, from other repositories, and from the broader policy world. In addition to resources on the history of civil legal aid, these will also include references to the many programs that come under the framework of the War on Poverty, such as Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, Head Start and child care, job training and workforce development and many others.

While the NEJL will seek out authors for these blog postings, we welcome contributions from anyone who is willing to contribute. If you are interested in contributing blog entries, please contact the NEJL Project Archivist. 

Alan W.  Houseman is President of the Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Law and Social Policy.