Former civil rights lawyer reflects on career
Lucas Masin-Moyer | Friday, January 20, 2017
A year ago, Russell Lovell, professor emeritus at Drake Law School, got a call from Benny Anders, the president of the Iowa-Nebraska chapter of the NAACP. Anders joked that now that Lovell was retired, he was now going to be working full time for the NAACP after years of being a volunteer civil rights lawyer. According to Lovell, “it’s been pretty much the case.”
Thursday evening, in the Eck School of Law, Lovell, a 1966 graduate of Notre Dame, discussed his many years with the NAACP, with whom he has been recently fighting the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General. Lovell also spoke on his inspirations for becoming a civil rights lawyer, the challenges that caused within his family and the importance of public service and civility. Lovell’s talk is part of programming for Notre Dame’s “Walk the Walk” week, honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Lovell said that his passion for civil rights started with his admiration of Jackie Robinson as a child, when his mother bought him a book on the Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman.
Lovell said he was shocked by “the kind of harassment the kind of terrorism the kind of threats he faced being the black man who integrated this American game that was a white man’s game.”
Lovell said that his views on civil rights didn’t become solidified until later in life because of his conservative upbringing in a country that was “the only red county north of the Mason-Dixon line when Goldwater ran.”
Another figure who influenced Lovell was Ed Murphy, a Notre Dame law professor and his advisor during his time with the Young Republicans at Notre Dame.
“What I recall about him was, and I think it’s really important to you today, he was the model for civility,” Lovell said. “When I hear the president-elect talking about his enemies … Ed Murphy would never talk about his enemies. He might talk about the Democrats who he disagreed with as opponents with different views, but he would never use the word enemies.”
During his time at Notre Dame, Lovell said that he also began to question his views because of the work of University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh.
“[Hesburgh] was a catalyst by example … almost no other American had the impact on peace and justice that he had over these years and so he was clearly a role model for me,” Lovell said. “He always had me thinking in terms of, if I disagreed with some of his views, he made me rethink those views.”
As Lovell moved closer and closer to advocating for civil rights, he drifted further and further from his parents who did not share his views. This came to a head when Lovell protested against a restaurant that his father legally represented because it would not admit a black classmate during his time at the University of Nebraska’s School of Law.
The singular event that Lovell sights as being instrumental in driving him to spend his life fighting for civil rights was the King assassination.
“[King] died when I was in law school, martyred in 1968,” Lovell said. “I remember the emotions across the nation, the riots. In Lincoln, Nebraska, people just poured out onto the streets, marched to the only black and white integrated church there. If there was ever an a-ha moment that was the one.”
After this moment, and after two years as a law clerk, Lovell began his career as a civil rights lawyer in Indianapolis, later moving to Drake University to teach law and volunteering with the NAACP, which he called the, “oldest, the boldest and — to use contemporary terms — the baddest civil rights organization in the country.”
Lovell concluded his talk by advocating for students to engage in public service and fight against racial discrimination.
“You don’t get rich doing it, but you can make a living do it,” Lovell said. “So my challenge to you is to give a thought to raising the status of lawyers in the eyes of the public, make a difference, consider racial justice. The country is in crying need for people to be more involved.”