Discusses his experiences with the creation of the Southeast Project Directors Association and its functions, among other things.
Oral history details
|Date of interview:||Jul 24, 1991|
|Where relates to:||Mississippi and Tennessee|
|Topics:||Civil legal aid: General|
Full text of transcriptDownload PDF: Transcript
National Equal Justice Library
Oral History Collection
Interview with Harrison McIver
Conducted by Sue Perry
July 24, 1991
Sue Perry: This is the oral history interview of Harrison McIver. It is taken on July 24, at the Don Caesar in St. Petersburg, Florida. My name is Susan Perry and I’ll be conducting the interview. Harrison, would you tell us a little bit about your background and how you became involved in legal aid work.
Harrison McIver: Well I’m from Bainbridge, Georgia, a small town in southwest Georgia and as a part of growing up the reason why I guess I ended up in legal services was because of being in the south, experiencing the injustices of segregation and racism that it formed a certain mental perspective about what I should do with my life. I had the opportunity and I see it as an opportunity that led to my whole philosophy of working in the fields of south Georgia in the tobacco fields and working along with people who were employed even during the 60s at $6.00 and $8.00 a day and knowing they had to maintain their families on such small wages. From college in Atlanta, Morehouse College, which had a tradition of activism in terms of the student population and with that type of philosophy then I went on Rutgers Law School which also had a history of activism being situated in Newark, New Jersey which immediately brings some thoughts to mind. And as a part of the African American then Black American Law Students Association chapter at Rutgers we had the Southern Mobilization Project which was designed to send law students down south and to create an opportunity for employment upon graduation. And I was a participant in that project and it took me to Mississippi, north Mississippi in fact in Holly Springs and Oxford. And there I was exposed to the segregation not necessarily segregation in the sense of public accommodations but at least racism and the oppressive system of the south in that Holly Springs north Mississippi area. And working with people like Lou Myers and Wilhelm Joseph and some other people that come to mind I was able to it helped me to better appreciate what my role building upon that foundation I received from my early childhood through my educational years and as a result of that I decided that is the kind of work I want to do and upon graduation I became a Reginald Heber Smith Fellow and I was assigned to north Mississippi in Cleveland which is the heart of the Delta, Cleveland, Mississippi which is in the heart of the Delta and from there I lived in Mound Bayou which was founded by blacks. So that really was an impetus to my whole commitment to staying in legal services and I guess at this point dedicated my life to the cause of helping the downtrodden and those without.
Sue Perry: Tell us a little bit about your work with the program at that time. Are there any cases or experiences that stand out in your mind?
Harrison McIver: Well there are a couple at least one that really comes to mind. When I was during the process of my tenure I left north Mississippi and went and helped start a program down in southwest but returned to the Delta area called Clarksdale and as a lawyer in Clarksdale, interestingly I was the only African American attorney in a three-county area, so you necessarily became an immediate leader without even wanting to be because you have certain skills to bring to the table. There was a suit that involved a police misconduct case on the part of a sheriff of Quitman County which is Marks, Mississippi, in one of the small Delta counties and we were called upon to provide legal representation for a person who had been seriously mistreated and denied medical treatment. So we filed suit against the sheriff and the county and it was my first federal jury trial and I think that is one that I remember. We held the jury out a long time and we lost the case but it was a great experience. The sheriff felt so his response was to it was saying that nigger better not come through my county at night and I’m going to get him and that made me feel good although it was obviously a negative statement because it let me know that he knew that we were going to be vigilant if he should continue that sort of practice. I think that case even though losing was probably initially one of the more the cases that come to mind that I really got into and really learned a lot from.
Sue Perry: What kind of lessons did you draw from that kind of experience and how did your individual clients and the client community at large relate to that kind of a case?
Harrison McIver: It was a galvanizing thing for the community, a unifying thing because people came out of the woodwork to attend the trial. It was probably and it was almost like the 60s for these folks in terms of their desire to see justice and look at the justice system and see it operate. They had meetings community meetings about the sheriff and we were asked to attend and explain what was going on in the case. Ironically you are thrust into some leadership role and even though you may want to temper yourself and maintain only a legal involvement in the case but you are part of the same community and people and you attend those meetings and you are concerned about justice and that sort of thing. And the lessons I learned as a legal services attorney you cannot totally divorce yourself from the community in which you live, that you should be a part of that community, you should participate as an individual and not necessarily all together in a professional capacity but you have a responsibility as an individual citizen to be a part and work with that community to uplift it and to ensure justice.
Sue Perry: Why don’t you telescope forward fast forward in your mind very quickly and ask now the legal services you know in 1991 and the kinds of experiences attorneys are having how do those compare with the background you just provided for us.
Harrison McIver: Well I think I would submit that there still remains within the legal service community the same kind of commitment I see it now from the perspective of where I am on a daily basis. However I do feel with being visited with the Reagan years and the lack of support from a national level, in terms of LSC board and that sort of thing regarding programs it has had a dampening effect to some extent. The country has changed I think to some extent. The people some of the people that are drawn to legal services may not have that same history and appreciation for legal services. They may do a competent job but in terms of being more than just a legal services attorney but being a part of that community and seeing yourself as a viable and participating part of that community I think some of that might have been lost. Although there are exceptions and that may be the exception I do see a greater percentage of that happening as compared what was the norm in the 60s and 70s and early 80s.
Sue Perry: Let me also ask you, I understand that you have had some extensive experiences with an organization called the Southeast Project Directors Association, Southeast Administrators Association. Can you tell us a little bit about what those organizations are and your relationship to them?
Harrison McIver: Well the two organizations as I understand it, now I’m not a youngster but I’m moving towards the level of being called an oldster but I think I’m somewhere in the middle of moving toward being an older person but my introduction to the Southeast Project Directors and Administrators Association occurred in the mid-80s but I am aware that the Southeast region project directors association and administrators were created by the regional offices of the Legal Services Corporation in fact in turns of creating these regional meetings and they were called trainings then but those that is how it was started then and once there is a change in the corporation, LSC Corporation the project directors and administrators recognized that was important function to be continued and on its own the project directors and administrators continue to have these annual meetings to bring people together of like mind to address management issues, substantive issues and to create a sense of unity and sense of support for each other and I think those are the functions of the organization.
Sue Perry: Do you remember your early impressions of the organization and could you compare them to your views of the organization currently?
Harrison McIver: Well I became an active participant in terms of leadership in the organization because I saw there was a lack of leadership, participation on the part of people of color. And rather than approach it from a very critical perspective from the outside I decided to that we should participate that I should participate and encourage other people of color to participate in the actual leadership. And so as this structure is constituted in that you have representatives from states sitting on the coordinating committee I encouraged other people of color to seek to be the representative of their respective states and to some extent that happened. I also recognized there in terms of facilitators or trainers at the conferences or the meetings there weren’t as many they were lacking on the part of females and people of color and I was an advocate for that to change and in fact did change. But when you tend to exercise leadership you may press yourself in the context of being put on the spot saying well now it’s time for you to take the leader in the sense of becoming chair and I was challenged to do that and I felt that I could not deny that responsibility and that is what happened and that is when I got involved and became chair of this meeting of the coordinating committee. And it was a learning experience for me. I hadn’t been exercising as a new project director I jumped in and after a few years of being project director I became the chair and I continued the philosophy that I was an advocate of and I did see some changes in terms of the facilitators and trainers and we were cognizant of a need for females and minorities, African Americans to participate in more visible roles at these meetings. Another thing that we did was to create a forum called the John Sizemore… I’m trying to remember the client’s name Mary Ellen Hamilton we’re not doing that now and I’ve noticed that. That forum that brought in Ms. Clinton should have been called the Sizemore Hamilton, or the Hamilton Sizemore Commemorative Forum because it’s important for us to remember those contributions.
Sue Perry: Who are those people?
Harrison McIver: Mary Ellen Hamilton was one of the people who started the National Clients Council and was a strong advocate for the interest of clients on the regional, national and local level and she died a few years ago and her life would be legacy is a legacy for all clients to replicate in terms of her commitment and involvement. One thing about . . . most people remember Mary Ellen Hamilton was that she even blocked the door of a Legal Services Corporation they were trying to put her out of a Legal Services Corporation board meeting and she said you’re talking about me in here and I should be there. John Sizemore’s life was a commitment to the cause of poor and without. He was Caucasian but in the heat of his advocacy in the context of being director of East Arkansas Legal Services I recall I’ve been told that John was speaking for African Americans in terms of issues that were prevalent in his area and said and was talking about African Americans and he said and we in terms of his total commitment. It was unfortunate that John took his own life because of his frustrations with this country and some other things from a personal perspective. And I thought it would behoove us to remember this kind of contribution that these two people had made and we created the Hamilton Sizemore Commemorative Forum. Before I leave here I’m going to ask why is this not being continued. Something else we did. We decided that there should be not only management issues discussed at these conferences but there is a need that project directors be aware and be trained on substantive issues so as a part of the agenda or program we would also include at least one substantive issue and hopefully that’s being continued here as well as the management issues.
Sue Perry: What difference did this concern about inclusiveness make in terms of the quality and character of the meetings and what lessons can we draw from what you’ve just described about the process of moving towards inclusion.
Harrison McIver: The first part what was your…
Sue Perry: The question was what difference did a more inclusive atmosphere make as far as the quality and character of this organization Southeast Project.
Harrison McIver: I think it became a mindset. People became much more sensitive to the issue and the response was that not only I as a person of color becoming an advocate that all participants became advocates those who were on the coordinating committee and some other context and became aware exactly what the problem was. . . . would say something in here that hey this not look diverse, we need to do something affirmatively to make sure we have a pool of participants I mean facilitators and trainers. Also I think it helped this region become a model region for other parts of the nation. Obviously it being the south there would be more diversity here than probably in some other regions but except for maybe the southwest and California and well take that back there should be diversity in a number of pockets across the nation. But I’m not sure that same diversity is as reflective and I think people look to us in this region, I say us, I’m no longer here, but I still feel wedded to this region as being indicative or representative of what we should embark to see realized in their respective region. Lessons, and I think the lessons is that one lesson that comes to mind is that irrespective of what may transpire in society in terms of regression in terms of the civil rights issues, in terms of affirmative action, in terms of all those code words that we remembered in the 60s and 70s that this region has maintained its vigilance in being progressive and not deviating from the course and I think that’s probably the lesson that at least a tradition I think has continued and that should be a model for other parts of the country in terms of regions.
Sue Perry: You mentioned several people to us during your discussion. I’m just wondering if there are any other personalities you must have gotten to know most of the people in the region associated with the organization over the years as you went through your leadership role. Are there any personalities that you in particular would like to mention?
Harrison McIver: Well I think there are two or three people that were very supportive and very sensitive to what my goals were with respect to the leadership I played and were Phyllis Thornton who continues to be the logistical person for this region and my having been instrumental in luring her from South Carolina to Mississippi to head the Pro Bono Project and being supportive of her continuing to work with this meeting in terms of logistics, she was very supportive of what I was doing and very helpful in making my tenure as chair to be very, well, work well for me. Mary Thomas played a role. She helped also to coordinate a meeting and was very instrumental and Stephanie was instrumental. Other project directors Bob Jenkins comes to mind, Yu Su [sp] comes to mind, Bob Davis, administrator comes to mind, Martha when she was part of this region obviously comes to mind. I remember John Powell. I remember James Head. Chokwe Lumumba who was at that time civil division director played a key role in coming to these meetings and being very supportive.
Sue Perry: Obviously your roots go very deep in the region and you mentioned a number of people who have gone on to national leadership positions. Let me ask you about some of the national leaders within legal services. I know that you are familiar with a number of these people. Do you know Clint Lyons? What are your impressions of Clint?
Harrison McIver: Yes. I knew Clint, I first met Clint when I was at Rutgers Law School. He was then director of Essex Newark Legal Services and I only knew him from his having held that position and his coming over to a Black Law Students Association meeting and speaking to us and I lost contact with him until I got into Legal Services. I knew that he was deputy regional director and then became director of Office of Field Services and by the time he became acting president of the Corporation I had become a director of a program at Central Mississippi Legal Services in Jackson, Mississippi. I got to know him a little bit better in that context and then I got to know him even better when he became executive director of National Legal Aid and Defender Association and since I have now moved to Washington as coordinator of the project advisory group, he is my best friend in Washington and I’ve gotten to appreciate his insight, his maturity, his wealth of knowledge about legal services and his just good judgment and strategic ability. And I view him with his years of experience as a person who helps mentor me even now in terms of my entrée on the national scene and I know in working with the project advisory group working with National Legal Aid and Defender Association I recognize the importance of the national organizations and the high competency level of the staff at the respective organizations and he has a great staff and he provides very significant leadership. And that is what I remember and know about him.
Sue Perry: I think you probably know Bucky Askew.
Harrison McIver: Bucky, yes I know Bucky. Let me tell you a story about Bucky and Clint in the context of not when I was director of Central but in the context of prior to my coming on board some years before. Central Mississippi Legal Services is a product of two programs having merged. One established by the bar association and one established by the community. And there was a strong tension and there was a drive a move by LSC to require that two programs could not exist in a service area and that is interesting we’re were talking about competition that two programs could not exist and receive funding for legal services And so there was racial strife and Clint and Bucky came down and were very instrumental in helping the two boards merge into what is now Central Mississippi Legal Services and to the extent that I recall that in fact and then after getting there and learning more about it, I think that is indicative and at that time Bucky was director of the Atlanta regional office or the southern region whatever it was called and I also recall Bucky in the context of his becoming OFS as he followed Clint around as deputy directors of the OFS and met him at several meetings and saw what role of importance he played.
Sue Perry: Before we conclude the interview are there any final comments you would like to leave with us?
Harrison McIver: I think this whole undertaking to create an oral history of legal services, Victor Geminiani should be commended for having thought of it and seeing it through because I think there is a lot of history and a lot of contributions made by people. I remember Dan Bradley and others that would not be retained and one thing I did allude to in talking earlier was that there is a historical vacuum in terms of generations I think within the community and I think it’s important as we gray and as we die off and as we leave legal services that that same vigilance and commitment and dedication will be imbued in these people who come after and that this will be an opportunity will present some vehicles for that kind of culture and history to perpetuate itself.
Sue Perry: Thank you.