In the wonderful oral history interview with Gary Bellow (1935-2000), which Zona Hostetler conducted in 1999 on behalf of the NEJL Oral History Project, Bellow recalled how his involvement in legal services was sparked by his interest in criminal defense. After graduating from Harvard in 1960, he received a Ford Foundation fellowship to study criminal law at Northwestern University, where he became friends with Earl Johnson Jr., who was studying in the same program. “I was curious, and I wanted to see how the world really worked, and so I went every place.” After a stint in the army, and hitchhiking across the U.S. twice, Bellow came to work for the Legal Aid Agency in the District of Columbia. The Legal Aid Agency was the predecessor to the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, which was established by statute in 1960. He worked as an investigator first, and then as a lawyer. During his time there, the agency underwent a dramatic transformation. When he joined in 1962, they had never gotten an acquittal, and his experience was to “find a way to resist this culture that forced everything into plea bargain.” But the agency started to “aggressively assert the rights of criminal defense.” They managed to reduce the caseload, the attorneys became much bolder, and soon they “were running acquittal after acquittal.” Bellow acknowledged his debt to Ken Pye and George Shadoan, the first administrators of the Georgetown’s Prettyman program, which was established in 1960. Interns from the Prettyman program provided critical assistance to the agency, and handled about one sixth of the trials by the mid 1960s.
Bellow became interested in civil matters by visiting the houses of defendants, where he saw life experiences that moved him, and “nothing was being done.” Working on the civil side might be “a better vehicle for bringing about change,” he thought. In 1963, his friend Dan Freed gave him a draft of the article of Jean and Edgar Cahn, whom he didn’t know. He liked the article, called up Edgar Cahn, and started collaborating with the Cahn’s, working through the article, and helping to devise a strategy for getting the new OEO to fund legal services. Despite Bellow’s skepticism, the Cahn’s managed to get the support of the leadership of the private Bar for federal support of the legal services program. Bellow recalls the tensions between the community action perspective, and the established Bar leadership. Sargent Shriver was “guiding this merger of young critics and this big-firm Bar leadership,” which was needed to support the legal services program. In 1965, Gary Bellow became Deputy Director of the United Planning Organization (UPO), Washington’s Community Action Program, where he stayed for about one year. They worked on improving public housing in D.C., and began with welfare rights organizing. While working at UPO, E. Clinton Bamberger Jr. asked him to join the Office of Economic Opportunity-Legal Services Program as its Deputy Director, but Bellow decided to stay with UPO.
CRLA entrance, ca. 1969-70. Photo: Alfred Corbett. Alfred Corbett Papers, NEJL.
In 1966, Gary Bellow left UPO to work with Jim Lorenz at California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), where they collaborated closely with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers on community organizing and legal assistance for migrant farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley. Despite the massive opposition by Governor Ronald Reagan, the state Bar, and several county Bar associations, the OEO continued funding of the CRLA. One of the principles of the CRLA was to involve clients as strategic partners in pursuing their cases, and Bellow became increasingly involved in teaching and group organizing. Collective action served as a powerful organizing and recruitment tool, and “it is no accident that in the 1974 Legal Services Act organizing was prohibited,” Bellow said. “We became increasingly controversial, but I learned about delivery.” Bellow then worked for the United Farm Workers on legal cases and in 1969 was recruited by the University of Southern California School of Law to develop a clinical legal services program. While at USC School of Law, Bellow continued to work as a lawyer, and — encouraged by Cesar Chavez — became counsel to the Black Panther Party. In 1971, he returned to Harvard, where he established the school’s major legal clinic. Later, he and Jeanne Charn initiated the Legal Services Institute, which provided legal services for poor and low-income clients, while offering continuing clinical education for law students and practicing attorneys. During his time at Harvard and under his leadership, the clinical programs at the school expanded, and Bellow always emphasized the importance of clinical education for the legal services movement, as well as the need for law schools to train students in the “hard lawyering work” of providing legal services to the poor.
The interview offers a wonderful opportunity to engage with Gary Bellow’s wide range of experiences and his broad vision of legal services, and learn from his unique perspective on legal anti-poverty work, drawing on theory as much as on practice, and combining sober assessments of the challenges and failures of the legal services movement with hope and inspiration for new generations of anti-poverty advocates and activists.
The interview is available as a streaming mp4 file.
A 1964 radio interview with Gary Bellow by Richard D. Capparella on the “Role of the Lawyer and the Problem of Poverty” is also available through Digital Georgetown.