Giving Power to the People

A profile of civil rights attorney and empowerment center founder Michael Sussman

| Summer 2016

  • 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.
    Photo by Kaspars Grinvalds/Fotolia

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.

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