By the time Michael Sussman was in kindergarten, he knew he wanted to be a civil rights lawyer. His idea for launching community run “empowerment centers,” where everyone can teach, learn, and “try themselves out” in new community roles, emerged from subsequent experiences.
While his kindergarten peers read Dr. Suess, Sussman read the New York Times, sitting with his parents in their Flatbush, Brooklyn den. They helped him with the “unfamiliar” words, Sussman recalls. The Cold War intrigued him, bringing uncertainty and bomb shelters, he says. By the time he turned six, in 1960, he was reading about the presidential race and shouting for John Kennedy’s election in Brooklyn streets.
By then, he was already aware of how some people were systematically sidelined, alerted by his father, Morton Sussman, who pursued his law degree with help from the GI bill. Too shy to practice, he attempted civil rights advocacy in the garment industry in the segregated South, where he worked in the late 1950’s. “He came back with balls of cotton and told us about conditions facing black people,” Sussman says. “He explained his efforts to integrate the work force and give black people jobs other than menial ones in the factory, and the resistance those efforts met.”
Sussman’s only alternative aspiration was to be a baseball player. But he never forgot his own humiliation when his father removed him from a baseball game after he walked too many batters as a pitcher. He realized he was not a good baseball player, he said, and also “how it felt to fail and be laughed at.”
That experience underlay his rebellion against academically stratified classes in middle school that marked some as less capable than others. He chose students from different levels for his sports teams, despite adults’ directions to choose his top tier peers. Later, as a lawyer, he would advocate for equal access to educational resources for special education students.
On the way to graduating from Harvard Law School, he tried out various uses for his skills. He worked with Ralph Nader on getting more citizen access to the court system. He collaborated with Sara Ehrmann, a leading Boston death penalty abolitionist since the 1920’s, on trying to end the death penalty. He helped Jimmy Carter devise ways to get more Democrats elected.
He also hung out in the basement of his uncle, Barry Sussman, a Washington Post local editor. There he watched reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein collaborate on revealing President Richard Nixon’s misdeeds.
Sussman’s Harvard classmates included Stephen Breyer, now Supreme Court Justice, and Lloyd Blankfein, now CEO of Goldman Sachs. “Only about 10 percent were interested in public service,” Sussman says of his law school cohorts. In 1977, to support that minority, Sussman worked with students from other law schools to organize the Equal Justice Foundation, which funds fellowships for law students working without pay for public service organizations. EJF has continued to flourish, he says.
After graduating, Sussman went to work representing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. From his office in Yonkers, he began his 27-year battle with the city to desegregate first schools, then housing. Each win required several more years of litigation for implementation, ending in 2007.
Meanwhile, he moved to an 80-acre farm in Chester, New York, in Orange County, 65 miles northwest of Manhattan.“I liked the diversity,” he said, friction notwithstanding.
Soon after he arrived, he received an anonymous call. “We don’t need another Jewish lawyer around here,” the man said.
Sussman is a practicing Jew who likes to have big, all-inclusive Passover celebrations. He held a recent one in a church. However, he also took legal action against a Hasidic community that tried to establish what he saw as a theocracy in a section of Orange County. And he criticizes Israeli efforts to take over Palestinian homes in Israel’s West Bank. For Sussman, civil rights take precedence.
Two years after the anonymous call, he again heard the man’s voice on the phone, this time identifying himself. The caller had been trapped in a tree on his property for several hours by guards from a nearby prison who suspected him of harboring an escapee. He was deprived of insulin he needed for his diabetes. Sussman represented him in contesting violation of his rights.
Police brutality has become a recurring issue for Sussman that he often addresses through community organizing, as with other civic problems. In the Orange County city of Newburgh, with its poverty, drugs, and black population frequently targeted by police, he led town meetings and heard testimony from dozens of people about harsh police tactics. He parlayed town meeting testimony into a court case that resulted in Newburgh police agreeing to wear body cameras. Sussman contended that the result would be better behavior by both police and suspects. “New York City police have to pass psychological tests, but police in Orange County don’t,” said Sussman. “The county has 43 different forces, and they’re not adequately trained.”
Sussman has represented several families of black men killed by police. In March he won a $6 million settlement for the family of D.J. Henry, thrown down on the road, then shot point blank in his car by police from two departments in upscale Westchester County, in 2010.
For 30 years, pro bono legal clinics and litigation for families of special education students has been another realm of endeavor for Sussman, as has, more recently, challenging emissions-heavy gas infrastructure in court and via coalitions of regional activists he helped form.
He promotes community consensus over “top down “decision-making. So when the highly hierarchical New York State Department of Health allowed the closing of a maternity ward in low-income, geographically isolated Port Jervis, he helped organize a town meeting attended by concerned mothers as well as city officials, hospital administrators, doctors and nurses. Then he sponsored a bus trip to Albany, so city officials and residents could talk directly with health department officials. Low income women, often with minimal prenatal care and no transportation, would have trouble getting to a hospital over a mountain and 30 miles away, especially in winter. “At the health department, there’s no process that includes the community,” said Sussman. “We had to force ourselves on them.”
Later, on behalf of two young Port Jervis mothers, he filed an Article 78 lawsuit, claiming the state health department was not fulfilling its public duties. He lost, as he sometimes does, opposing large institutions. Nevertheless, he savors his wide-ranging work. When he was offered a federal judgeship in 1994, he turned it down.
“I quickly rejected the idea, as I enjoyed being an advocate and felt I would make an impatient judge,” he said. “In the late 1990's, I received the Democratic Party endorsement to run for state supreme court judge, but then withdrew within two days for much the same reason, and because my father convinced me I could not well support seven children on the salary.”
Jessica Cohen is a freelance reporter based in Pennsylvania. She's recently reported on empowerment centers for Utne Reader (Summer 2016).