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Remembering Steve Pollak, a lawyer whose work inspired generations


Leaders from the Justice Department and the civil rights community gathered today in Washington to remember a lawyer whose work inspired generations. Steve Pollak died earlier this year at the age of 95. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The majestic Great Hall at the Justice Department filled with luminaries who came to pay their respects. One of them is Kristen Clarke. She's the assistant attorney general for civil rights.


KRISTEN CLARKE: I am the latest in a long line of civil rights division leaders that stretches back to the man we honor and remember today, Steve Pollak.

JOHNSON: Pollak launched his career in the era of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, a time when violent protests erupted as Black students integrated schools in the South.


CLARKE: Steve was not just present at the creation. He was one of the creators.

JOHNSON: Pollak labored through some of the most tense and important moments in the last 60 years.


CLARKE: On his very first day in the Civil Rights Division, Steve was deployed to Selma, Ala., after state troopers attacked peaceful demonstrators marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a day now infamously known as Bloody Sunday.

JOHNSON: Attorney General Merrick Garland highlighted the experience that Pollak considered the pinnacle of his career.


MERRICK GARLAND: Back in D.C., he helped draft the Voting Rights Act of 1965 using scissors, Scotch tape and a yellow legal pad.

JOHNSON: Pollak would stack old versions of the bill he liked underneath his chair. And at the end of the day, he'd ask lawmakers whether they really intended for those good bits to go into the dustbin. More often than not, the scraps under his chair found their way into the VRA, the most important civil rights law of the 20th century. The attorney general pointed out Pollak had always wanted to serve in government because he thought it was a force for good.


GARLAND: Steve's extraordinary service to this department and to the cause of civil rights helped ensure that the government in which he served was, in fact, a force for good.

JOHNSON: In the course of his long life, Pollak argued a dozen cases before the Supreme Court. He prodded elite law firms to take on civil rights cases, and he helped advance and defend a post-Civil War statute that's still being used today. This time, it's a key part of a case filed by police officers against rioters who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.