In 1980, five Black women in Chattanooga were wounded when local members of the Ku Klux Klan shot at them from a car window as the women were waiting for a taxicab. Although the assailants were eventually arrested, two of the men were acquitted by all-white juries. A third attacker was convicted but was sentenced to only nine months in prison.

Randolph M. McLaughlin ’78, who worked at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, heard about the case as protests against the verdicts erupted across Chattanooga. As a relatively new attorney, McLaughlin and his colleagues agreed to represent the women — dubbed the Chattanooga Five — in a civil lawsuit against the klansmen, in the hopes of achieving some measure of justice for the victims.

McLaughlin and his team decided to deploy a novel legal strategy they had devised based on a Reconstruction-era statute. They won the landmark case, and not only obtained monetary damages for the women, but also an injunction to prohibit further terrorism against the city’s Black residents.

McLaughlin, who is now a professor of law at Pace University’s Elisabeth Haub School of Law and co-chair of the civil rights practice group at Newman Ferrara LLP in New York, went on to write a book about the approach his team used against the Klan in Chattanooga — a strategy still used today.

McLaughlin’s story is the subject of a new short film, “How to Sue the Klan,” which screened in February at Harvard Law School and featured appearances by McLaughlin and film director John Beder.

In advance of the screening, McLaughlin spoke with Harvard Law Today about how he became the lawyer he is today, his trailblazing legal approach, and his advice for aspiring civil rights attorneys.

Harvard Law Today: When did you know you wanted to become a lawyer?

Randolph McLaughlin: From as far back as I can remember, law was the only profession that I ever thought about. I’m talking back to middle school, if not beyond. There was a television show I liked called Judd for the Defense and a few others that highlighted how lawyers were an integral part of our society, about how lawyers help people.

Then, I attended high school during the late 1960s, and civil rights lawyers — radical lawyers, activist lawyers — were all over the news back then. The one who was most prominent in my mind was William Kunstler, and he was a civil rights and antiwar lawyer.

HLT: Did you have any particularly impactful experiences as a student at Harvard Law?

McLaughlin: The professor who probably impacted me the most as a lawyer is Derrick Bell. I took a survey course from him called Race, Racism and American Law. It was eye-opening.

I’ll never forget when he talked about how, in the desegregation fight, whether it was in Boston, or Kansas, or wherever, the folks who sued knew that the change they wanted to see would not happen for them. They knew that they were sacrificial lambs, that their children were being sacrificed for the greater good. That when those kids went into the school in Little Rock, Arkansas, and they were being taunted and brutalized, or when the little Black kids in Roxbury were getting on buses and going to South Boston and being called every racial slur under the sun, they were being sacrificed for the greater good. That really made me angry — to sacrifice children. They shouldn’t have had to go through that. We should have sacrificed ourselves for them, not the other way around. And I was really angry. And I said to Bell in class, “I wouldn’t have done it. I would have done something else, but not that.” It was just a really impactful class.

HLT: Are there any other memories from law school you would like to share?

McLaughlin: I wrote my third-year paper, which was a requirement for graduation, under Derrick Bell. The paper looked at records and laws from 1619 through 1705, tracing the development of case law in the colony of Virginia regarding slavery. I discovered how, during that early period of Virginia’s history, there was a lot more fluidity in the institutions than you would later have in 1705. In 2019, I revisited the article 40 years after I first wrote it. I retooled it, and finally published it as an article in the Hastings Law Review with a new title: “The Birth of a Nation: A Study of Slavery in Seventeenth-Century Virginia.”

HLT: How did you wind up going to work with William Kunstler at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which he had co-founded?

McLaughlin: During my second year at Harvard, Bill Kunstler came to speak at the law school. I was the last person in the room, which had been standing room only. It felt like he was speaking directly to me. He said something that really shocked me. He said, “We drink racism in with our mother’s milk.” He also said, “I need Black lawyers to work alongside me, because you will understand these issues in a way maybe I can’t.”

So, at the end of the speech, I found myself on the stage. Don’t ask me how, because to this day, I don’t remember how I got there. There were all these Black Panthers, Native Americans, and other activists there — and then there was little old me. I walked up, and I said, “Mr. Kunstler, I have been following your career since I was in high school, and I want to do the work that you do.” He said, “Look me up when you get back to New York.” I did, and I got my first job with him at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

During, my first few weeks there, I said “Bill, I want to be a great trial lawyer, so I need you to teach me how to do it.” He said, “I will.” And he did. We handled murder cases together all over the country. He taught me how to be a trial lawyer.

HLT: How did you come up with the strategy you used to sue the Klan on behalf of the Chattanooga Five?

McLaughlin: It was a group effort. When I was in college, I was an African history and history major. I studied American history, and the Civil War and Reconstruction era were fascinating to me, because during Reconstruction, we literally restructured our legal system and our constitutional system. Up until that time, the federal government didn’t have any right to interfere with what was going on at the state level. But after the enactment of the 14th Amendment, the federal government now had the power to regulate some of what happened in the states.

After the Civil War was over, the Southerners took off their grey uniforms and put on white robes. They were using guerilla tactics to terrorize. And we’re not just talking former soldiers, we’re talking judges, jurors, cops, sheriffs — they were all klansmen.

President Grant sent a message to the Congress that said “I don’t have the power to regulate this condition. I don’t have the power to send my troops into the Southern states. I need legislation.” As a result of that, Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act. It was one of the enforcement acts of 1871. I wrote a law review article about this in 1992, where I examined what Congress intended using legislative history.

“There was no precedent before us. We literally had to write this case on whole cloth, because there was nothing for us to base it on.”

The statute is broken up into various parts. One piece of the statute became another statute called 42 USC Section 1983. And 1983 is the statute that is used most commonly to sue police departments for violating constitutional rights — that came from the Ku Klux Klan Act. The other statute that we used, and is still on the books today, is 42 USC Section 1985. It gives the victims of Klan violence the ability to sue their terrorists. Where there is a conspiracy with two or more, say, if they go out on a highway to engage in these bad acts, I can get damages and an injunction. In this case, we wanted both an injunction to prohibit future acts of Klan violence and we wanted damages for the women.

Before our 1980 case, it had never been successfully used against the Klan by lawyers in civil court. The U.S. government had used it against the original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. But that was a criminal case. But civilly? No. There was no precedent before us. We literally had to write this case on whole cloth, because there was nothing for us to base it on.

HLT: What did the lawsuit achieve for the women who had been attacked?

McLaughlin: Whenever you sue klansmen, you’re not assuming rich, wealthy individuals who own property. The chances of us getting a significant monetary payment to the women was not that great. But one of the klansmen had a rental house that he had sold during the course of litigation. We had that property deemed a fraudulent conveyance, and it was then placed back in the name of that klansman and sold, and some of the proceeds went to the women. But there’s an even more significant piece that we got. We also got an injunction.

HLT: Why was an injunction such a game-changer?

McLaughlin: The judge issued the order on March 1, 1982, and in it, he said that in addition to the monetary award, that the defendants, the individual klansmen, and each of them together with their agents, employees, successors, the whole nine yards, were permanently enjoined from assaulting, threatening, harassing, interfering with, intimidating, or attempting to intimidate any Black resident within the city of Chattanooga.

After this injunction was issued, there has not been, to my knowledge, one single incident of Klan violence in Chattanooga. That’s the power of the injunction. I’m a civil lawyer, so if you violate the injunction, I don’t have to go to the prosecutor to get you arrested. No, I go to the judge, and I make a motion to hold you in contempt of court. And the judge issues the order bringing you in. And if you are in contempt of that court order, he sends you to jail. There’s no jury, no prosecutor — just straight to jail.

HLT: How have lawyers since then used the strategy you devised to go after the Klan in other parts of the U.S.?

McLaughlin: After the case in Chattanooga, we wrote a playbook to recount the story and help attorneys understand the strategy we used. It’s called “Racially Motivated Violence: Litigation Strategies.”

There’s a part in the film where they display a map that shows every city, every town, after the completion of our case, where they used our precedent and our strategy to win cases across the country. Essentially, this statute was used to bankrupt the Klan all across the country. The Klan is no longer a real force to be reckoned with. We have other groups now, but the Ku Klux Klan is pretty much gone.

“Essentially, this statute was used to bankrupt the Klan all across the country. The Klan is no longer a real force to be reckoned with.”

HLT: What was it like working on the short film about the Chattanooga Five case?

McLaughlin: I was sitting in my office at Pace, and I got a phone call. It was a journalism student named Tiffany Herron. I hadn’t gotten a call from Chattanooga in 40 years. She told me that she was doing a downtown tour about Chattanooga, and they mentioned this case, which she had never heard of. She asked me to come down and talk to the community, at an event that included Opal Jackson, the last surviving member of the Chattanooga Five, whom I hadn’t seen in four decades.  

Sometime later, after I returned to New York, I got a call from a gentleman named John Beder, a documentary filmmaker from Chattanooga. He had heard about the case and told me he wanted to make a film about it. I was a little shocked that I was getting a call about a case I handled 40 years ago, and that it still has value and importance to people today. In fact, the strategy was used in a lawsuit over the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville where one woman died. The statute still has vitality today.

HLT: What advice do you have for Harvard Law students who want to do civil rights work?

McLaughlin: I think it’s important that, if you have an interest, you try to do what I did and make connections. If I had not gone to that lecture with Bill Kunstler, had I not gone up to him and said, “Sir, I want to do the work you do,” I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you. I wouldn’t have this career. I would have gone into legal services. But because I put my foot in the door, I got an opportunity.

I tell students, you can do two things. One, you can start to do the work now, as a law student. When I was in Boston, during the school year, we volunteered to work for a civil rights lawyer. They didn’t pay us, but we did the work to get experience. So, get an internship, get an externship, do a summer program. There are organizations like the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, or the CCR, or the ACLU. Do these things while you’re in law school. Don’t wait until you graduate. It’s too late then.

The second piece is to realize that not everyone is built to work in civil rights full time. There are certain economic choices you make when you do this work. Many Harvard Law graduates go off to work for big firms, but remember, big firms often have pro bono opportunities. So, even though you may not be able to work full time in this area, because you have other economic needs, or your own desires, you can carve out some time, even in a corporate setting, to do this work.

Finally, one of the things my partner and I are doing is that we’re trying to show small firms can play an important role too. We want to show that with civil rights work, if you are careful about the cases you select, you can do good and do well at the same time.

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