Partyin' with the Lawyers

The Mississippi Center for Justice will host a street party on Congress from 5 to 8 p.m. on Friday, June 13, on Congress Street."

In a borrowed room in lawyer Rob McDuff's converted Victorian home-turned-office space, the staff of the newly incorporated Mississippi Center for Justice staff, a nonprofit organization, waits to move into its new home on the other side of Congress Street in author Richard Ford's childhood home. A huge collage with A-C-L-U spelled in newspaper and quotes about freedom adorns the wall over a fireplace and mantle.

Martha Bergmark, president and CEO of the Center, offers a Diet Coke before we talk. She is a slight, spry Caucasian woman with roots in Mississippi that have moved her to work for justice her entire life. After attending Oberlin College and the University of Michigan Law school, Bergmark returned to Mississippi and was the founding executive director of the Southeast Mississippi Legal Services Corp. in Hattiesburg. She then moved to Washington, D.C., and was the vice president for programs of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association before feeling the need to move home.

"Several years ago we first worked on the idea," she said, explaining where the idea of the Center came from. She spoke of the need for antipoverty and anti-discrimination advocacy and plans for the organization to be that "legal advocacy arm" in Mississippi. The Center will be the first of its kind to be "home-grown and home-owned," according to a statement. "The Center will resume the statewide legal support to anti-discrimination and antipoverty activists once provided by civil rights and legal services support groups."

A substantial anonymous donation will cover operating funds for the entire first year, with the four-person staff (there are openings for an advocacy director and an Equal Justice Works Fellow) starting up this month. The Center's first plan of action is to attack three basic problems: school discipline problems ("It's related to zero tolerance but it has become more complex than that," Bergmark said); problems with safety and and pay issues in the immigrant work community in the poultry industry ("There are a dozen Latin American countries with workers [in those communities] being hired by labor contractors"); and sub-prime predatory financing companies ("Sub-prime means a market for people who don't qualify for bank rates [such as title loan companies, check cashing companies, etc.]").

Through litigation, lobbying and community engagement, the Center hopes to make Mississippi a good place to live for all of its citizens. It relies on public funding to provide these services.
The Center will host a street party on Congress from 5 to 8 p.m. on Friday, June 13, the day after its ribbon-cutting ceremony, which will occur at 11 a.m. on Thursday, June 12, at 736 N. Congress Street. There will be live music by the Earth Angels, donated food from George Street Grocery, Two Sisters Restaurant and 930 Blues Café, and the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association will provide non-alcoholic beverages.


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