Belafonte preaches to the choir at Legal Aid’s 100th anniversary gala

The Maryland Legal Aid Bureau celebrated its centennial anniversary Saturday night in Baltimore and keynote speaker Harry Belafonte struck a beautiful chord. Both Belafonte and Legal Aid Executive Director Wilhelm Joseph actually sang together on stage.

Belafonte entertained the crowd but also offered serious sentiments stemming from his experience as an international human rights activist. The message was right on time for an organization reenergized around a human rights framework.

Belafonte acknowledged that he was “preaching to the choir.” But he quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, saying, “it’s important that you preach to the choir because if you don’t they could stop singing.”

Concerned over America’s “moral compass,” Belafonte expressed disappointment over how the federal government is addressing the plight of the poor and disadvantaged and also called for a change to current terrorism policies, including an end to rendition. He not only related his experience as a friend of Dr. King and as an advisor to the Kennedys but also discussed the “void” those legends filled during the Civil Rights Movement, pointing out the current void has yet to be filled.

(For those looking to learn more about Belafonte, HBO will air a documentary, “Sing Your Song” on Oct. 17, chronicling his career and work alongside other notable civil rights activists.)

Along with celebrating Legal Aid’s centennial, the event also honored 100 “Champions of Justice” who have been exceptional advocates for the rights of the indigent and disadvantaged. Gov. Martin O’Malley addressed the crowd and praised the night’s honorees. He also noted Legal Aid’s recent accomplishments in serving the poor and stemming the foreclosure crisis.

Unfortunately, the centenary celebration comes at very difficult time for funding for legal services for the poor. Proposals in Congress threaten to roll back funding to 1999 levels and the results could be devastating at a time  when legal services are needed more than ever. To make up for the coming cuts, donations from the public to local, legal service organizations will be more important than ever.

Furthermore, attorneys should consider doing more pro bono work. If you’re looking for pro bono opportunities, the Maryland Pro Bono Resource Center is an excellent place to start and even offers comprehensive training and insurance in exchange for your commitment. If we all make a commitment to give a little more than last year, perhaps we’ll go a long way towards filling the access to justice void Belafonte alluded to during his sermon to the choir.

(Photo courtesy of Erek Barron. From left to right, Pamela and Harry Belafonte, Taria and Erek Barron.)

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