In transitioning into his new position as the President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Damon Hewitt L’00 fondly described his role as being “a leader of leaders,” referring to the organization’s staff and partners who work to further the Lawyers’ Committee’s mission of advancing civil rights and racial justice in America.
“What we need to do is to make the amazing promise of democracy real, because for too many of us, it’s too elusive. It’s just a myth,” said Hewitt. “Whether it’s the ‘American dream,’ upward mobility, education being a great equalizer, home ownership or just having a stable job or access to adequate housing, the promise of democracy is still elusive for too many. And often, not always, but often, it is along lines of race and class—and that’s a gap that we can close… . That’s really my life’s mission, and that’s my work here.”
The history of the Lawyers’ Committee
The Lawyers’ Committee traces its roots back to 1963, when three events occurred in very quick succession: On June 11, Alabama’s Governor George Wallace stood in a schoolhouse door, using his body to physically prevent Black students from enrolling in school; later that night, President John F. Kennedy made history as the first president to discuss and call for new legislation pertaining to civil rights in a televised address; then, in the early hours of the following morning, voting rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated. Those events culminated into Kennedy’s subsequent calling for a meeting of lawyers in the East Room of the White House—a meeting prompted by Bernard G. Segal L’31, who called Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to ask why the President had yet to mobilize the country’s lawyers in advancement of civil rights.
The meeting that President Kennedy convened —which was attended by, among others, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander L’27— constituted the beginning of the Lawyers’ Committee and its longstanding commitment to furthering civil rights and racial justice through the leveraging of the private bar’s expansive resources and expertise.
Today, the Lawyers’ Committee continues that work through its national and regional offices across the country. Hewitt explained that the Lawyers’ Committee often takes on large, complex litigatory matters, many of which are class action cases and issues of first impression.
Hewitt’s leadership role
For Hewitt, his role in leading the national Lawyers’ Committee necessitates both the defense of already-secured rights and forward-thinking about the kind of country that is possible: an inclusive country wherein racial justice and equity are fully realized.
“We have to defend the territory of yesterday because all of the civil rights statutes are under attack, but I want to prepare us to help build the future we deserve. I want to make sure that we’re clear about what our affirmative vision is for what Black people and other people of color want and need in this country. I want to make sure that we’re clear about developing and mainstreaming that narrative through litigation, legal advocacy, the organizing work that some of our staff work on, and policy work on Capitol Hill,” Hewitt said. “It’s not just about little wins here and there, or tough losses here and there. It’s really about that big picture of where we’re trying to go as a people and as a nation.”
Hewitt, who himself came to the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School with a keen interest in education policy, continues to credit the mentors that empowered him through his journey. Notably, he remembers the camaraderie shown to him by another alum who encouraged Hewitt to knock on the door of legendary civil rights legal scholar and Penn Law Professor Lani Guinier, who would go on to become one of the most pivotal mentors and supporters in Hewitt’s career; that knock on the door led to a Research Assistant position, which is an experience Hewitt values to this day.
“I was haunted by the opportunity that I had, that others who were similarly situated did not have,” Hewitt said in describing his educational experiences as a Black student at the only majority-white public high school in New Orleans—a selective math and science school. It was only once he began attending college at Louisiana State University (LSU), that he realized that he was viewed as “an anomaly” because he was a Black man who was succeeding.
“I don’t think there’s that much of a difference between me and other Black men, women, boys, and girls who didn’t have those kinds of opportunities, so I wanted to close not the so-called achievement gap, but the opportunity gap,” he said. “I knew I wanted to do that with my life and my career.”
Community, to Hewitt, is inseparable from his work as a civil rights and racial justice advocate. As a fellow Black Penn Law graduate and BLSA president, Hewitt noted that Alexander holds a place in his heart as a “mentor from across the ether.” Hewitt also recollected the impact that activist communities at LSU and the Law School had on him as a young scholar and advocate.
“One of the things I’ve learned from advocacy on campus at LSU and advocacy on campus at Penn Law is the importance of feeling, and realizing the importance of what it means, to be a full stakeholder in whatever community you’re in,” Hewitt said. “I remember the very first case in which I served as lead counsel and what it felt like to have my clients level the playing field by sitting across from the school board president and their attorney in a lengthy, tough mediation. That community’s voice didn’t just have a seat at the table; they had access to the full menu… . The chance to use the law to be able to do that on a consistent basis, not episodically, is fantastic. If we could use our legal capacity and knowledge to have all people feeling like and being full stakeholders, then we’d really make a democracy real. That’s what democracy’s all about.”
Hewitt continues the Law School’s historic connection to the Lawyers’ Committee, joining the ranks of Bernard G. Segal L’ 31 and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander L’27, as well as countless alums and students who have worked, interned, and provided generous pro bono service through the organization’s programming.