April 4th marked the 54th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s tragic death. That day was a time for many of us to reflect on Dr. King and his tireless work fighting for equal voting rights, to end segregation and to bring about racial justice for all. You may have heard about his work in places like Montgomery and Selma. But what you may not know is that King also worked for the people who lived right here in North Lawndale.
Chicago is one of the northern cities where many of the millions of African Americans, fleeing the racial violence and legalized oppression in southern states during The Great Migration ended up, seeking more equitable opportunities. Unfortunately, these newcomers quickly realized that their dream of integration was just that – a dream – as many faced blatant discriminatory practices and were excluded from access to housing, education, and continually harassed by police.
Dr. King’s legacy still resonates deeply within this community.
In 1966, Dr, King and his family moved into the center of North Lawndale, right next door to where the Lawndale Christian Legal Center stands today. He was determined to make that dream of integration a reality for African Americans in Chicago. His work with the Chicago Freedom Movement focused on the poverty and inequality that our community was experiencing through the use of peaceful protests, demonstrations, and empowering local leaders.
Though it remains unrealized, Martin Luther King’s dream of justice for all is one that still inspires and motivates so many of us in North Lawndale. While members of this community have experienced many changes since the 1960s, residents continue to face systemic inequalities today. Lawndale Christian Legal Center is committed to Dr. King’s vision and is striving to advance it through our work in North Lawndale around racial justice and the criminal legal system.
Why haven’t we made more progress towards equality in North Lawndale?
Unfortunately the inequality that was so prevalent when Dr. King lived in North Lawndale hasn’t gone away. Dr. Dennis Deer, a Cook County Commissioner for the 2nd District as well as the Lawndale Christian Legal Center’s Vice President of Organizational Health and Management believes that’s because “equality doesn’t quite do it… we have to move towards equity. Equity is about what you need.” Racial equity is the very thing we have yet to see in North Lawndale, as 75% of households have an income less than $50,000.
In addition to high economic hardship, residents experience heightened levels of interactions with the criminal legal system as our community is one of the most heavily policed neighborhoods in Chicago.
It is at this juncture of economic injustice and racial targeting where the work of Lawndale Christian Legal Center begins, particularly the way in which Cliff Nellis, the Executive Director of the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, and Dr. Deer have shaped our holistic approach to criminal justice. The LCLC model provides much needed community-based holistic legal services, which includes social, psychological, and job training support to our clients, in addition to free legal representation.
The fight for civil rights happens daily here.
The broader mission of LCLC, as Cliff describes it, “is addressing a very serious civil rights failure”. That failure is the lack of resources and services the legal system provides, which in turn maintains a cycle of economic and racial injustice.
As a clerk for a Federal judge, Cliff saw the vast differences in the representation provided by private firms versus the public defense system, where there was hardly time to establish relationships with clients or point them to resources they could utilize. He saw people not only being disproportionately targeted by the police and the legal system, but also being underserved because they couldn’t afford to have the wraparound legal and social services they needed. That is why Cliff and our founding board members decided to take this unique holistic approach to criminal legal defense, because the job of a defense lawyer, in Cliff’s words, “is to ensure that their client is not abused by state power.”
By providing a more holistic form of legal defense to his clients and building a space where community members are key stakeholders in the work we do, Cliff began doing what many other racial justice advocates are trying to do today — shifting the power that the criminal legal system has back into the communities they historically harm. Of course he hasn’t done this alone, but he has accomplished this in partnership with many community organizations and members of North Lawndale, including Dr. Deer.
Change isn’t easy...it requires innovative thinking. And action.
As a lifelong resident of North Lawndale, Dr, Deer always knew that his community was underserved but hadn’t gained a broader understanding of why until he began working as a clinician. It was in this role he realized that most Black men and women had been impacted by the criminal legal system, and that “a paradigm shift was needed within communities in order to bring about the changes we want to see.” In order to bring about that paradigm change, he needed to shift from clinical work to policy work. “If you change policy, you impact programming… the minute you start changing laws, you change the way people respond and the way people live.”
Just as Cliff began using the law to empower North Lawndale, Dr. Deer began empowering African Americans on a local and national scale through his work in policy, helping write the Second Chance Act, serving as the 2nd District Cook County Commissioner, and passing local legislation to redirect funds from the criminal legal system into systems and programs that support social and economic welfare within Black communities.
The three key ways Dr. King’s mission and passion live on at LCLC.
It’s not surprising that there’s a large painting done by a local artist of Martin Luther King, Jr. hanging in Dr. Deer’s office at Lawndale Christian Legal Center. Dr. King’s beliefs and ideals still influence the work that happens here everyday. Cliff, Dr. Deer, and many other leaders at LCLC see their work as continuing the legacy of Dr. King by advocating for change in the criminal legal system, working to shift policy to bring more resources to our community, and, most importantly, empowering community members to play a key role in changing the systems that continually drive inequity. They too could say, as Dr. King did in his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
If you believe in this work and our mission to build a better criminal justice system, please consider donating today so that the Lawndale Christian Legal Center can continue the fight for racial justice.