Civil rights litigation isn’t always about securing a win in court – sometimes there is a deeper reclamation that comes from fighting for what’s right alongside others who care about the cause.
That was evident Sept. 12 as racial and social justice advocates from across the state gathered to celebrate the work of Mark Dorosin and Elizabeth Haddix, the former heads of the UNC Center for Civil Rights.
After UNC fired the two attorneys in December 2017 and banned the Center for Civil Rights from taking legal action on behalf of its poor and minority clients, Dorosin and Haddix moved their work to the newly-launched Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights and continued working from Haddix’s home.
After seeking a partnership to expand their resources and advance their work, in July, they united with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a national nonprofit that, since 1963, has worked to address inequities for Black Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities.
Members of civil and voting rights organization attended last week’s celebration of the merger, in addition to Dorosin and Haddix’s clients from Duplin, Halifax and Johnston counties.
“The idea of bringing these two forces together, the local grassroots-based advocacy with national resources and lawyers and strategies just seemed like a perfect synergy,” said Dorosin, adding that there are new opportunities to build and expand and raise North Carolina as a national model for civil rights work.
“What it means is more resources, not just for the work that we’re doing and our clients are doing in North Carolina, but the work that all of you are doing also, because we know that part of the reason we’re about to maintain this struggle is because we work together. This is a close-knit community of support, advice and collaboration.”
Haddix said their clients will have access to greater resources now, adding that it was nice to have some “superstars” fronting their work.
She and Dorosin had previously worked with the Lawyers’ Committee on school desegregation cases, voting rights and environmental justice.
“These are brilliant people who are absolutely committed to racial justice,” Haddix said. “I’m just blown away by the creativity that they have shown us, the energy that they show us.”
The Lawyers’ Committee had long wanted a bigger presence in the South, and Haddix said she and Dorosin’s work will now expand beyond North Carolina. Their new titles are managing attorneys for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Regional Office.
Haddix recalled her first day on the job at the UNC Center for Civil Rights in 2010 – she said she had to go to a community meeting in Halifax County to advocate for combining three segregated school districts to enhance education for all students.
The Center was about to release a report on the education system in Halifax, which highlighted issues in the poor county with a declining school-age population.
“Community lawyering is about doing what the clients want; it’s about following their lead,” she said. “We saw legal challenges to be mounted, but the clients said, ‘No, we’re waiting. We’re going to go around … and we’re going to try to change people’s hearts and minds with this report.’”
The community in Halifax wanted to be part of a solution that didn’t involve litigation, and Dorosin and Haddix obliged.
However, the community decided years later to bring a lawsuit, which made its way to the state Supreme Court. That case questioned whether local governments should be responsible for a “sound, basic education” for all students — the wording in North Carolina’s seminal Leandro case — but the advocates lost.
Becky Copeland, chair of Halifax County’s Coalition for Education and Economic Security and a plaintiff in that case, said the loss ultimately didn’t matter.
“Whether you win in a court or not, the restoration that you receive being in the trenches with caring, competent people committed to your cause – people like Mark and Elizabeth – those are game-changers right from the jump,” she said. “It becomes irrelevant what the courts say at that point because Mark and Elizabeth give you the power to keep fighting.”
Copeland said Haddix and Dorosin’s work in Halifax helped community members who had been stigmatized understand the cause of the troubled conditions in local schools, and shed light on the inequities.
“It helped me realize I can be part of the solution,” she added. “Regardless of what the court says, I am a fighter for civil rights because of Mark and Elizabeth, and that’s the empowerment that they give to the people they serve, because they don’t handle you as an outsider. They handle you as if they’re cut from the same cloth, that we’re all a part of this solution together and that my problem is your problem.”
David Harvey, the President of the Halifax County NAACP, agreed with Copeland. Harvey said even though the system in Halifax remains the same, the advocates and their continued work have changed.
“I don’t know what we would have done in Halifax County had it not been for you guys; I really don’t,” he said. “I don’t know even if we would be where we are today. Even though we didn’t get everything we wanted, we opened a lot of doors, and we couldn’t have opened those doors without you guys.”
“What we hear so much nationally about is all the reactionary things that are going on in North Carolina,” said Rob Harrington, a board member for the Lawyers’ Committee. “What we don’t hear about is this incredible civil rights community and racial justice community that we have here.”
He said the merger would allow the Committee to be more effective in the South.
The group’s Chief Counsel, Jon Greenbaum, agreed.
“The nation’s eyes are now looking at North Carolina, and as Mark said, sometimes, of course, it’s toward the negative, but we see great opportunities to do things here and advance racial justice here through the courts, through advocacy,” he said. “It could be a real moment in the next several years in terms of moving things ahead.”