How CREDO grantee Center for Constitutional Rights is fighting oppressive systems of power

Note from the CREDO team: This May, Center for Constitutional Rights is among three amazing groups that will receive a share of our monthly grant. Funding from the CREDO community will help CCR to fight oppressive systems of power, protect social movements and communities under threat, and build a more just and liberatory world.

Read this important blog post from Charisse Waugh, Center for Constitutional Right’s Grant Writer below, then click here to visit to cast your vote to help determine how we distribute our monthly grant to this organization and our other amazing grantees this May.

During the 1964 Democratic National Convention, civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer learned that national Democratic party members were holding a secret meeting to decide the number of seats her Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party would get to have on the convention floor. Hamer had rejected a two-seat compromise earlier, frustrating Democratic party power brokers. She knew her exclusion from the impromptu deal-making was not an accident and she pushed her way into the meeting. Party members pleaded with her to just “listen to the leaders.” Hamer responded, “Who is the leader? I know you ain’t been in Mississippi working with us. I can’t see a leader leading me nowhere if he’s in New York and I’m down here catching hell.”

Two years later, Hamer and local organizers in Mississippi hit a wall in their battle to secure voting rights for Black people. Beaten, jailed, and terrorized, Hamer and fellow organizers still managed to register about 300 Black citizens to vote in the town of Sunflower, but they were not allowed to cast ballots in the municipal election. Hamer asked a group of progressive lawyers that included Ben Smith and three New Yorkers – Morton Stavis, William Kunstler, and Arthur Kinoy – for help. They filed a federal lawsuit and set precedent when they convinced a judge to toss out the results of the municipal election because racially discriminatory practices had kept Black voters from participating. Following their victory, the four attorneys launched the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City. More than 50 years later, the Center continues to fight for justice by following the blueprint that Hamer gave us: We take orders from people impacted by injustice and work in service of their needs. Still headquartered in New York City, the Center is now the oldest and largest Black-led organization in the U.S. employing movement lawyering – which means we partner with social justice movements to bring strategic litigation that supports their vision of liberation, justice, and accountability.

Center for Constitutional Rights staff and board visit Hamer Memorial in Mississippi

In 2021, retired special education teacher Sharon Lavigne was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for stopping the construction of a $1.25 billion plastics manufacturing plant near her home in St. James Parish, LA. When she visited our New York office a few years ago, Sharon told us how she got activated. “When I found out a $9.4 billion industry was coming a mile and a half from where I live, that’s when I became angry because we were already bombarded with ten chemical plants within a 7-mile radius, and I feel like adding another one to where I live, I just couldn’t take it. So many people were dying of cancer… And that’s why I started to fight.”Since 2017, the Center has provided legal support to Sharon’s group, RISE St. James, and other Black-led community organizations and environmental activists fighting environmental racism in Louisiana’s notorious “Death Alley” (formerly known as “Cancer Alley”) – where Black and indigenous communities have long borne the brunt of the petrochemical economy. We successfully defended landowners whose land was expropriated under eminent domain by a private pipeline corporation, and when one of the companies blocked Sharon and her neighbors from visiting the burial sites of their enslaved ancestors and threatened them with arrest, the Center sued and won them access. Right now we’re partnering with local groups to stop the construction of a massive grain terminal whose particulates would further pollute the air.

Social justice movements’ demands sit at the heart of our work, and we remain accountable to those demands. We keep our work as closely connected to the people as possible. That’s why we have returned to our roots and re-established an office in the South. At this second home in Jackson, MS, the Center will continue to further our mission to dismantle the four power structures that subjugate marginalized communities: systemic racism, structural gender oppression, oppressive economic structures, and abusive state power. 

We asked Sharon what success looks like for her. “My daughter who moved away because of headaches, I want her to come back to St. James. I would love that. I would love if they could all come home, and they’re out in the yard playing on the green grass and picking pecans when it’s pecan season. I would like for it to be flourishing again. I would like to plant our gardens again; plant our fruit trees again. Because all of that has been destroyed. I would like for it to come back the way it was before the industry came. The first industry came in 1969. My daddy welcomed it, not knowing it would be harmful to our health. We want to restore our health. We want to restore our community. That’s what I would like to see.” Can you imagine? The Center for Constitutional Rights can.