The Selma Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is protesting the Legal Services Corporation, of Alabama’s recent announcement that it will close two of its nine offices and terminate eight of its employees because of financial challenges. The Legal Services Corporation was established in Alabama in the mid-70’s to deliver quality legal services to people who live at or below the poverty line. It was also established to challenge inequities and unfair policies and practices that affected the quality of life of low-income people in impoverished communities.
The Legal Services Corporation is moving to close or minimize its Selma office, which serves six rural Black Belt counties. The Black Belt is one of the poorest regions in the nation, exemplified by an array of statistics that render the Black Belt at the bottom in poverty, infant morality, health disparities, drop-out rates, crime and other social inequities. Two of the four attorneys terminated by the corporation were based in the Selma office, which serves the heart of the Alabama Black Belt.
Attorney Carolyn Gaines-Varner, whose position with Legal Service was terminated, had been in the Selma office for thirty-four years. Her work in saving Black owned land has received national recognition and acclaim by the American Bar Association (ABA).
Another attorney with less seniority than Attorney Varner was also terminated in the Selma office. Now, only one attorney, also with less seniority than Varner, is left in that office to serve the entire Black Belt, except for telephonic contact. That attorney is of a retirement age.
These efforts of setting the stage to close the Selma office will leave the Black Belt without vital legal services. The Selma SCLC Chapter is also extremely concerned about the failure of the Legal Services Alabama to provide its terminated employees with an opportunity to be heard at a due process hearing, or an opportunity to appeal its seemingly arbitrary and capricious decision.
Of the four attorneys terminated, all are women, except for one male who is over retirement age. Moreover, the corporation is advertising for field positions in Birmingham and Mobile, Alabama. The focus on urban areas at the exclusion of the rural Alabama Black Belt is disturbing. No other Legal Services office has been reduced to one on-site attorney to serve its constituencies. We are concerned that there appears to be no fair plan for down-sizing the legal services firm in the midst of its financial problems, leaving low-income citizens with little or no legal services.
We are also aware that Attorney Varner was a final contender for the state directorship several years ago. Jimmie Fry, with far less legal service experience, was selected instead of Ms. Varner, who had thirty years of legal services experience, compared to Fry’s experience as a District Attorney. Apparently, it was Mr. Fry’s decision to terminate Ms. Varner and the other seven employees.
As we commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream and movement for jobs and justice, it is unfortunate that Alabama is again in the forefront of the movement to take away voting rights, immigrant rights, women’s rights, and jobs equity and justice. Justice will be destroyed if the Legal Services would deny employees their jobs, after years of dedicated service, without due process of law.
SCLC has launched “Truth & Justice Tuesday” to address these issues in the spirit of “Moral Mondays”, which is currently taking place to address injustices in North Carolina. We will persist until significant changes are made in Alabama, including in Legal Services Alabama. For more information call Franklin Fortier at 334-526-4534.