Powers delivers keynote at 2018 MBF Annual Meeting

Issue March/April 2018

Attorney Lonnie A. Powers was honored with the Massachusetts Bar Foundation’s Great Friend of Justice Award at its March 2018 Annual Meeting. Powers, who has led the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation since its founding in 1983, will retire in August 2018. Below are his remarks from the event.

Thank you for recognizing me as a Great Friend of Justice. It is a wonderful honor that causes me to remember all the Great Friends of Justice that I have been privileged to know since coming to Massachusetts – friends who have led me, taught me and shown me what it means to live a life dedicated to justice.

For a moment let us pause to remember our own list of such friends – so many who walked that path toward a more just commonwealth but who are not here to continue the journey with us. So many who have pointed the way for us to follow:

Thank you. Remembering them and their examples has caused me to reflect on what justice means to me and why it is and has been so important. 

Much research and our own lived experiences have shown that children have an innate sense of fairness. That desire for fairness, for everyone to be treated well, is probably the foundation of justice. 

But in a world of more than 7 billion people on this planet, we can hardly rely on an inchoate sense of what is fair for one or a small number of people to guide a complex society.

Maya Angelou said, “Because equal rights, fair play, justice, are all like the air: we all have it, or none of us have it. That is the truth of it.” So if justice is fair treatment for each of us, how can we make sure that people are treated fairly, especially the people without power, money or a handy army or police force to take care of them? We do so, or try to anyway, through the law. The law is a set of rules that among other things allocates power among and between the people and organizations that shape our lives and it is the mechanisms of the law that regulate the use of power. When power gets out of balance, we can use the law as a lever to move things back into balance.

The law can also be used unjustly – to foster oppression and injustice as well as to foster fairness and justice. That is a lesson we have to learn and relearn so that we are eternally vigilant to push against the misuse of the law.

Growing up in the South in the 50s and 60s, I saw, or could have seen more clearly had I been willing to look, how the law could be and was used to subjugate one group of people because of the color of their skin. How the law could be and was used to steal from renters and share croppers like my grandfather the money they earned by endless hours of backbreaking toil and to deny them any redress.

Massachusetts has long recognized the moral basis of justice. Our Supreme Judicial Court was, in just one example, the first court in this country to declare slavery forbidden by the Constitution of the Commonwealth. But lest we get too complacent, remember that that same court approved the segregation of the Boston Public Schools.

Having a moral basis for justice does not ensure that injustice will not continue; all around us, there are ample examples of injustice, of the failure to live up to the fairness justice requires. 

To be reminded one has only to pause when walking toward the public entrance to the State House to gaze on the seated figure of Mary Dyer who was hung on Boston Common because she refused to be silent about her religious faith or look at the painting of Chief Justice William Stoughton in the House Chamber as he publicly repented of his role in convicting innocent girls and women of witchcraft.

Those public examples from the past are echoed in the economic disparity that is ever more visible all around us, in the bodies of the dead black men and women who have been the victims of those sworn to enforce the law and in the divisive public policies espoused by many people in high public office – policies and pronouncements that exacerbate economic disparity and social tensions.

What then to do in the face of such bleakness? As lawyers, as those who love justice, we can strive every day to use the levers the law gives us to right the balance of power in favor of fairness, while realizing that this is a struggle from which we cannot rest; for the forces of opposition are strong and ever striving to tip the balance in their favor.

There is something more we can do – something more personal – something that all the great religious faiths teach: to love one another and to live out that love. 

One of the core commandments of Judaism is “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)

“You will not enter paradise until you have faith, and you will not complete your faith until you love one another.” (Prophet Muhammad)

“Love the whole world as a mother loves her only child.” (Buddha)

We all have our favorite or most meaningful expressions of that central truth. For me it is the parable attributed to Jesus of the Good Samaritan who found a man by the side of the road, robbed, beaten and bleeding. It is important that he took the man to an inn and paid for his food and care instead of passing him by. Most important is that he got down, down off his horse, down on the ground by the dirty, bleeding man whom he had never seen before and picked him up. That act of love, of compassion, says more about how we must live as champions of justice than any amount of money The Samaritan may have paid to have the man cared for.

I am humbled and so very grateful to be called a Great Friend of Justice in this company, in the memory of so many who have done so much for justice before us. 

Thank you – let us be about our business of seeking justice.

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