Photo of the March on Washington in 1963

The Washington Lawyers’ Committee was established in 1968 in response to the publication of the Report of National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. This Presidential Commission, also known as the Kerner Commission, had identified racial discrimination and poverty as root causes of the riots that erupted in cities across the country during the late 1960s and in Washington, DC in 1968 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This effort was spearheaded by Louis F. Oberdorfer and a small group of lawyers he enlisted – John W. Douglas, John E. Nolan, William D. Rogers, Edward Bennett Williams, Robert L. Wald and Herbert J. Miller, Jr.

Since 1968, the Committee has maintained strong ties to our counterparts across the country and to the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Our affiliates include: Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Colorado Lawyers’ Committee; Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice (Boston); Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area; Mississippi Center for Justice; Public Counsel (Los Angeles); and the Public Interest Law Center (Philadelphia).

Equal Employment Opportunity Project

The Committee’s first program – its Equal Employment Opportunity Project – was established in 1971 at a time when the Washington area was beginning the construction of its Metro system and Congress was about to enact major new legislation providing federal, state and local workers with their first meaningful protections against employment discrimination.

Working with a coalition of community organizations, the Committee initiated an extensive litigation campaign challenging denials of training and job referrals by unions and contractors throughout the region. Major lawsuits were filed seeking enforcement of affirmative action plans covering federal and local government construction projects. Committee cases, co-counseled by over a dozen area law firms, won precedent-setting victories against many of the region’s largest unions and contractors, opening significant employment opportunities for African Americans.

Working with employee task forces at scores of federal agencies, the Committee provided representation to minorities and women in dozens of major cases, winning many of the first judgments upholding claims of federal workers under the newly enacted provisions of the 1972 Civil Rights Act. The Committee has built on this early record to bring class actions affecting more than 25 federal agencies and dozens of private sector defendants, securing millions of dollars in back pay and damages, and injunctive relief for thousands of workers.

The Committee also won landmark appellate rulings upholding the use of paired testers to investigate hiring discrimination. The Committee’s success in the cases, brought on behalf of the Fair Employment Council of Greater Washington (now the Equal Rights Center), paved the way for the use of tester-generated evidence in a number of other jurisdictions.

Fair Housing Project

In the mid-1970s, the Committee established its Fair Housing Project to address denials of equal housing opportunity. Shortly thereafter, it played a key role in working with a coalition of local clergy to create the Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington.

Over the past 30 years, the Committee has represented the Council and hundreds of individuals in dozens of cases that have established a national standard for effective advocacy and secured hundreds of thousands of dollars and broad injunctive relief for victims of housing discrimination.

In many of its cases, the Committee worked with the Fair Housing Council in that organization’s ground-breaking efforts to utilize paired testers to investigate allegations of discrimination. In 1999, the Fair Housing Council and Fair Employment Council merged to become the Equal Rights Center.

Public Accommodations Project

On a local level, the Committee has had experience with a number of public accommodation litigation cases dating back to its creation.

In 1988, the Committee played a leading role in a series of high-profile national cases, starting with a case against Holiday Spas Health Clubs, followed by other major hotel and restaurant chains including Denny’s and Adams Mark Hotels. Since then, the Committee has successfully challenged race discrimination by hotels, restaurants, rental car agencies, retail stores, sports clubs, and taxicab companies.

The Committee’s pioneering fight against consumer racism – more than 35 years after the sit-ins at segregated lunch counters – has resulted in important victories for individual victims of discrimination and changed the way companies do business.

Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project

In 1978, the Committee initiated a project to address the legal service needs of immigrants and refugees that was the first such program in the DC area. Over the years, the Committee’s Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project has received support from over 1,000 volunteers on matters of political asylum, challenges to restrictive immigration laws, as well as the preparation of comprehensive policy papers on legal issues affecting the Latino/a Community.

The Committee has also devoted increasing resources to assisting immigrants facing denials of basic civil rights due to their national origin. As part of this effort, the Committee has filed a number of cases challenging discriminatory employment and housing, and has assisted groups and individuals targeted for abuse following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

In recent years, special attention has been devoted to the concerns of day laborers in the District of Columbia and surrounding jurisdictions.

Disability Rights Project

In 1991, the Committee began a program to assist individuals seeking to enforce their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Working closely with the Disability Rights Council of Greater Washington (now the Equal Rights Center), the Project won a series of important victories opening and improving access to hospitals, banks, hotels, movie theaters, restaurants, grocery stores and other retail establishments, including access to emergency evacuation procedures of these entities.

At the same time, the Project has worked to achieve greater access for people with disabilities at public services and buildings, including access to polling places, voting machines, and public transportation, and ensuring effective communication for deaf individuals with public services, police departments, 911 services and in the prison system.

DC Prisoners' Rights Project

In 2006, the DC Prisoners Legal Services Project, the foremost prisoners’ rights advocacy group in the District of Columbia, joined the Committee to become the DC Prisoners’ Rights Project.

The Project advocates on behalf of the more than 3,000 prisoners held in DC jail facilities as well as over 4,000 individuals incarcerated under DC law at Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities nationwide.

The Project’s work, which expands on the Committee’s prior work on prisoners’ rights and prison reform issues, utilizes advocacy, litigation, education, outreach and policy reform to carry out its mission, and seeks to address systemic failures in our prison and parole systems.

Public Education Project

The Committee began its work in support of public education in the District of Columbia in 1979, when Superintendent of Schools Vincent Reed invited law firms to represent parent organizations at a number of schools. This pilot effort evolved into two major programs, one focused on education reform advocacy and the other focused on the building of partnerships linking area law and corporate legal departments with specific DC schools. Today these partnerships are active at over 30 schools, bringing tutoring, mentoring and other enrichment programs to thousands of DC school children.

Over the past 30 years, the Committee’s education reform work has been responsible for the preparation of dozens of highly-respected papers and reports documenting the needs of our local public schools in terms of basic funding, building repairs and support for athletic and other extracurricular programs. Other publications have documented the need for competitive salaries for teachers and principals and reforms in teacher evaluation procedures.

On several occasions the Committee has served as counsel in successful landmark litigation seeking to assure the abatement of thousands of fire code violations at schools throughout the city and compel the city to provide mandated nursing services to public school students. The Committee has also issued a major report advocating clearer lines of responsibility in school governance and testified in support of the Mayor’s authority to appoint the DC School Chancellor.

Special Projects

The Committee has over the years handled significant matters on an ad hoc basis and administered special projects for limited periods of time.

Special Committee projects over the years have focused on securing meaningful treatment for narcotics addicts; providing quality childcare for low-income parents; representing African-American servicemen in challenges to less than honorable military discharges; and providing supplemental instruction to hundreds of minority students about to enter area law schools. The Committee has also provided legal research and support to nonprofits working on Haitian relief and recovery efforts following the devasting January 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Perhaps the most noteworthy single case – Runyon v. McCrary, 427 U.S. 160 (1976) – was a successful U.S. Supreme Court challenge under Section 1981 of the 1866 Civil Rights Act to the racially discriminatory admissions policies of a Virginia nursery school.

The Committee’s achievements are largely attributable to the thousands of lawyers from over 100 area law firms who have given generously of their pro bono time made significant and financial contributions. The Committee’s record also reflects the skill and dedication of the talented individuals who have served with distinction on its staff and as co-chairs, directors, and trustees.

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