Martha Bergmark, 57, left a troubled Mississippi in the 1960s thinking she would never come back. Now, she relaxes in her downtown office surrounded by a computer, printer and stacks of paper. Her office phone rings several times, her cell phone vibrates once. Bergmark is in demand, and her organization, the Mississippi Center for Justice, is busier than ever, expanding on their promise to provide "access to justice" for low-income Mississippians. MCJ was incorporated in 2002 by a group of lawyers and community leaders who were troubled that Mississippi was without systemic homegrown legal advocacy run by a nonprofit public interest law firm.
Bergmark is a native Jacksonian, a Murrah Mustang, and was molded in childhood by the Civil Rights Movement. Thinking that "there were greener pastures somewhere else," she entered Oberlin College in Ohio with an interest in journalism. She kept in touch with her Magnolia State, and was concerned with its many socioeconomic shortcomings. She finally decided that she should return home, "with a skill that would be useful to advance racial and economic justice in Mississippi." She entered law school at the University of Michigan, and during the summers, she interned for North Mississippi Rural Legal Services.
After practicing civil law in Hattiesburg for a decade, Bergmark moved to Washington, D.C. During the Clinton administration, she served as president of the Legal Services Corp. Today, Bergmark divides her time between Mississippi and Maryland, where her husband, Elliot Andalman, a disabilities lawyer and president of ACLU Maryland, lives.
When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Mississippi Gulf Coast, MCJ hired three attorneys and opened up an office in Biloxi. "We were horrified," Bergmark says somberly. Once residents obtained medical attention and food, their non-physical needs had to be met.
"There were serious legal issues," Bergmark says. "People were having trouble finding places to live, getting FEMA benefits, and some were even threatened with loss of home or eviction." Affordable housing needs were met and MCJ made sure relief money was shared with the folks who needed it most.
The incoming crop of students from the law schools of Ole Miss and Mississippi College inspire her. "I want the state to know that there is a commitment by lawyers to provide justice for all," she says. "This is not just an empty promise recited in the Pledge of Allegiance, but a national commitment. As long as there are some who can't afford justice, then we can't have justice for all.
Bump. MCJ has a really good web site for those who'd like to know more. What an amazing organization.
- Tom Head
She's a good dancer too.
- Ray Carter