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Sargent Shriver understood power, and the power of an idea. In April 1964, fresh from creating the Peace Corps and having survived the trauma of the assassination of John Kennedy, his brother-in-law, Shriver was trying to jump-start Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Proposals for what would become Head Start, the Job Corps, and Community Action agencies, swirled through Washington. Among the talking papers was a Yale Law Journal article by Edgar and Jean Cahn. They argued for federally funded neighborhood law offices; only lawyers, they argued, would have the independence and professional duty to seek redress for their powerless clients. As Shriver told The Washington Post in 1991, “I was deeply impressed by it, almost overjoyed. . . . It was like Columbus discovering America, an exciting thing for me to discover someone who’s written something that captures my mind and imagination.” That article spurred Shriver to create Legal Services. Shriver and his antipoverty warriors had to joust with local bar chiefs and nose-out-of-joint legal aid groups before taking the proposal to Congress. A key ally: Lewis Powell, then the president of the American Bar Association, who helped convince the House of Delegates to support Shriver’s proposals. By April 1967, Legal Services offices had opened in 250 cities and towns, fundamentally, if marginally, changing the balance of legal power across the land. That same year, Shriver declared that legal reform would become the top priority of the Legal Services program, a fateful decision that led to more than 100 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and the undying hostility of right-wing politicians. Shriver, who now suffers from early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, had an extraordinary career of public and private service, from Head Start to the Special Olympics, from the American embassy in Paris to the Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson nameplate. As his biographer Scott Stossel quotes him, he was “fondest of Head Start because I was in a sense its father,” but he was “proudest of Legal Services because I recognized that it had the greatest potential for changing the system under which people’s lives were being exploited. I was proud of the young lawyers who turned down fat, corporate practices to work for the poor, and proudest of them when they dared to challenge state and federal procedures and win.” Back to Main Story

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