Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the New York City Bar Association

Fifty years ago this April, almost a year after the Civil Rights Act went into effect and a few months before the Voting Rights Act became law, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to an overflow crowd in the Meeting Hall of the New York City Bar Association.

The City Bar was a logical venue for what would be Dr. King’s first speech before a bar association, as it was becoming known for its civil rights advocacy. Two years earlier, in 1963, City Bar President and former Attorney General Herbert Brownell had created the Committee on Civil Rights Under Law, which produced reports on the constitutionality of proposed federal civil rights legislation. That same year, Chief Justice Earl Warren spoke at the City Bar about the legal implications of desegregation efforts while, out on the sidewalk, demonstrators held up signs reading “Impeach Earl Warren.”

“It is common knowledge that I have had a little something to do with lawyers since the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott,” Dr. King told the audience at the City Bar. “I have appeared many times in the criminal courts, I have served time. I guess I could be described as a “notorious litigant” and “frequenter of jails.”

Dr. King went on to describe his “deep and abiding admiration for the legal profession and the tremendous role it has played in the service of the cause with which I have been identified.” He added, “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.”

As he addressed the legal profession, Dr. King felt compelled to answer the charge, common at the time, that those who advocate civil disobedience are as lawless as the “uncivil disobedience” or lawlessness of the segregationist. He said, “In disobeying such unjust laws, we do so peacefully, openly and nonviolently. Most important, we willingly accept the penalty, whatever it is. But in this way the public comes to reexamine the law in question. In Selma, over 3,000 Negroes from all walks of life went to jail, suffered brutality and discomfort, so that the nation could reexamine the voting registration laws and find them woefully inadequate. We call it doing witness–you would call it testifying–with our bodies.”

Even as Dr. King lauded the legal profession and the Association for its past work, he urged it to do more, saying, “Standing before you in the House of this Association, whose very cornerstone is an abiding respect for 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 entire fabric of our democracy when human rights are flaunted.”

Today, one can only imagine the inspiring atmosphere in the Meeting Hall as Dr. King intoned, “The time is now! I do believe that when the thundering voice of your advocacy is insistently heard it will be heeded. It will speed the end of our denial, the end of our discrimination, the end of our second-class citizenship, the end of all inferior education. Yes, it will hasten the end of the whole rotten, ugly system of racial injustice which for 350 years has degraded the doer as well as the victim. If the legal profession would share the passion and action of our time, it has the strength to achieve these magnificent goals.” Read the entire speech here: