Judge Claudia Morcom Visits Oakland to Raise Money for an Old Friend
OAKLAND – Ann Fagan Ginger has always counted on her good friend, retired Michigan Judge Claudia Morcom, for help with the Oakland-based Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute, which Ginger founded to promote peace and civil rights around the world.
She called Morcom to go to New York to talk to the United Nations Human Rights Committee about U.S. human rights abuses. She called her to testify before human rights organizations in Argentina, France, Grenada, Mexico, Nicaragua and Switzerland. Each time, Morcom said yes and paid her own way.
Now Ginger, 82, a robust, fast-talking attorney who has published 22 books, wants to retire. So, she turned to Morcom once again for help raising money to hire her replacement. Morcom bought herself a plane ticket to Oakland and was the featured speaker Sept. 16 at a fund-raiser at the home of attorneys Barbara Rhine and Walter Riley, who is an institute board member.
It’s not just Morcom’s long history of civil rights activism or her willingness to hop on a plane to anywhere in the world that inspires Ginger’s trust in her. It’s Morcom’s ability to make others listen.
“If you are beautiful, and you are wise as she is, it makes a difference in how you present yourself,” Ginger said..
Her poise was on full display at the recent fund-raiser, where the hosts brought out every chair in the house – including the rocking chair – to accommodate the 25 (cq) people who gathered.
Dressed in an elegant blue suit with a fresh red manicure, Morcom stood in front of the living room fireplace and spoke for 20 minutes without consulting any notes. She told of her long history of working with the institute, an organization that recently convinced Berkeley to become the first city in the country to recognize the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a U.N. treaty that requires every city, county and state to make periodic reports to the U.N. about how they’re fighting racism and racial discrimination.
Morcom has been involved with the institute since Ginger founded it in 1965, and Morcom was one of only a few African-American women lawyers in the country. Morcom was working as southern regional director of the National Lawyers Guild Committee for Legal assistance in the South to register African American voters in Mississippi.
“She was one of the civil rights movement’s unsung heroes,” said the Rev. Daniel Buford, associate minister at Allen Temple in Oakland who attended the talk. “History books are silent about her contributions to voter rights.”
It was a frightening time. Civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner went missing on June 21, 1964, the day Morcom arrived in Mississippi. They were later found murdered, setting the tone for the 18 difficult months Morcom spent in Jackson coordinating the efforts of the National Lawyers Guild and recording the testimony of citizens who had been denied the right to vote.
“For an African American to go to Mississippi, it took guts, and she did it,” Ginger said.
Morcom said she felt compelled to go south in spite of the danger.
“Mississippi was our South Africa. It was strictly apartheid. Even though they were in the majority, blacks couldn’t register to vote. They needed lawyers down there,” she said.
Morcom first decided she wanted to be a lawyer at age 8 while sitting at her parents’ Detroit dinner table. Every Sunday her family shared the news of the week and her parents, Gladys and Walter House, who grew up in Mississippi ,told her of the civil rights abuses happening there. Morcom wanted to make a difference.
There were only seven women in her class at Wayne State University School of Law. Four of them graduated. None of them found jobs. So Morcom and a friend started their own firm. Before long, she was hired by the first integrated law firm in the country, Goodman, Crockett, Eden, Robb and Philo.
In addition to her work securing voting rights for all Americans, she founded Neighborhood Legal Services in Detroit, working to address poverty and to end the Vietnam War. She served as Judge of Wayne County Circuit Court from 1993 to 1998.
In her retirement, Morcom continues to be a spokesperson for the institute. She focuses on raising the awareness of such issues as the Cuban Five – Cuban nationals convicted of spying and conspiracy to commit murder whom some activists say are U.S. political prisoners – and human rights abuses in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Based on the testimony of Buford and Morcom, the U.N. Human Rights Committee found that the U.S. government did not protect people’s rights after Katrina and that there was not equal protection under the law for people of African descent. The committee asked the U.S. departments of Homeland Security, Justice and State to make a report in 2007 about progress made in the past year.
Asking those in attendance to support the work of the institute, Morcom said, “What happened in New Orleans was an ethnic cleansing. It’s a crime and the U.S. government is guilty of this crime.”