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Dr. King’s Speech at the City Bar

Today, on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the City Bar remembers an evening in the spring of 1965 when Dr. King addressed an overflow crowd at the House of the Association on West 44th Street.

Nearly a year after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and three months before the signing of the Voting Rights Act, Dr. King’s address, entitled “The Civil Rights Struggle in the United States Today,” was delivered at a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. Dr. King drew a huge and enthusiastic crowd: the main meeting hall was filled to capacity, and over 500 more attendees listened to the address from outside, while more than 3,000 had to be turned away for lack of space.

At a time when the American Bar Association was still resistant to civil rights legislation, Dr. King’s speech was his first before any major bar association in the United States. The New York City Bar Association had already established its position as an outspoken advocate for civil rights. In 1963, City Bar President and former Attorney General Herbert Brownell had created the Committee on Civil Rights Under Law, which, under the leadership of chair Francis Rivers and members Jeanette Lee Rankin, Whitney North Seymour, Lloyd Garrison and others, had produced comprehensive reports on the constitutionality of proposed federal civil rights legislation. Several months later, in October of 1963, Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered an address at the City Bar on the legal implications of desegregation efforts while picketers carrying “Impeach Earl Warren” signs demonstrated outside our doors.

In his 1965 speech, Dr. King called on the moral and practical obligations of the legal profession to justice and the rule of law in America:

“Standing before you in the House of this Association, whose very cornerstone is an abiding respect for the law, I am impelled to wonder who is better qualified to demand an end to this debilitating lawlessness, to better understand the mortal danger to the very fabric of our democracy when human rights are flaunted.”

He reaffirmed that, despite violence and legal segregation, his faith in the law and lawyers as instruments of justice had not been shaken, continuing:

“Your profession should be proud of its contributions. You should be aware, as indeed I am, that the road to freedom is now a highway because lawyers throughout the land, yesterday and today, have helped clear the obstructions, have helped eliminate roadblocks, by their selfless, courageous espousal of difficult and unpopular causes.”

Finally, Dr. King expressed hope that America, even in the face of fierce opposition, would ultimately fulfill its promise as a country of legal equality, proclaiming that “I do not despair of the future. We as Negroes will win our freedom all over our country because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is America’s destiny.”

The New York City Bar Association proudly celebrates Dr. King’s legacy and honors his memory.

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