In the 2002 oral history interview with Edgar Cahn, which Alan Houseman conducted on behalf of the National Equal Justice Library Oral History Project, Edgar Cahn recalls how he met Jean Camper at Swarthmore. She was the daughter of Dr. John E. T. Camper, a prominent African American physician in Baltimore who had founded the city’s first chapter of the NAACP. The two married, and Edgar Cahn eventually followed Jean at Yale Law School after he received his PhD in English (she graduated in 1961 and he graduated in 1963).
Cahn’s involvement with legal services started during his first year of law school, when he worked as an intern for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) with Wilbur Cohen, David Hackett and Robert Kennedy. During his second year of law school, he worked as a speech writer for Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. In the meantime, New Haven had been tapped by the Ford Foundation as a city for one of the first Gray Area programs (the Cahns knew the Ford Foundation’s Paul Ylvisaker from their studies at Swarthmore). Jean Camper Cahn started to work as associate counsel for the Redevelopment Agency in New Haven and was asked to draw the corporate papers for the Community Progress Inc., a community development organization funded by the Ford Foundation that undertook the development of different neighborhoods. “These were days when law was being used as a means of social development, at the same time, obviously, that the civil rights movement was going on full tilt in the ‘60s,” says Cahn. One of the central questions they were concerned with was how they could “amplify the voices of those who are powerless and who are disenfranchised,” says Cahn. “Couldn’t we create a neighborhood law office that could act as a vehicle to amplify those voices?” Because it wouldn’t be the lawyer’s voice. It would be the client’s voice, but it would be the lawyer using a constitutionally protected role.”
The Cahns’ work on legal services in disadvantaged communities and on neighborhood law offices formed the basis of their landmark 1964 article for the Yale Law Journal, “The War on Poverty: A Civilian Perspective,” which laid out a vision for legal services for the subsequent generations, and proposed a national system of legal services to the poor. Edgar Cahn recalls how they completed their work on the article after they had moved to Washington, D.C., where Edgar Cahn worked as special counsel to the attorney general, and Jean Cahn worked at the State Department as the first African American woman at the Africa desk. Edgar Cahn recalls their close collaboration with Gary Bellow while they were working on the article. Bellow had called him up after reading one of the Xeroxed underground copies of the draft that were circulating. “And so we sat down around the table many nights trying to think through what an institution that hadn’t been born would look like: What kinds of decisions it would have to make about cases it would take. What kinds of functions it would play. Would it get involved in criminal law or just in civil law? Would it get involved in test case? Would it be a corporate lawyer, so to speak, for groups of poor people who wanted to incorporate in tenants associations? And we benefited enormously from his insights, his experience, and just sort of the brainstorming that went back and forth,” says Cahn. (Cahn invited Bellow to serve as a co-author, but Bellow declined.) Edgar Cahn continued to work as special counsel to Sargent Shriver, and wrote speeches for Shriver, Robert Kennedy, and Nick Katzenbach, which gave him the unique opportunity to give a public voice to the discussion about a federally funded legal services program.
Cahn also discusses the preparation of the 1964 HEW conference on the Extension of Legal Services to the Poor, and its significance. He touches on controversies with the American Bar Association and the NLADA over legal aid funding, and recalls the process of establishing the Antioch School of Law in 1972, which emphasized public interest law. The school was closed in 1988, but its legacy continues at the University of the District of Columbia’s Clarke School of Law where Edgar Cahn is Distinguished Professor Emeritus. Jean Cahn died in 1991.