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By John Masson
Martha Bergmark—honored in October 2011 by the White House's Champions of Change—has worked for decades to ensure that poor and marginalized people have access to justice.
Bergmark said she went to law school in part because she thought her home state needed more skilled advocates. So once she graduated, she returned home and established a civil rights and poverty law practice, then founded Southeast Mississippi Legal Services. Later she went to Washington, D.C., where she served as executive vice president and president of the Legal Services Corporation, and as senior vice president for programs at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.
"Public interest law was something I went to law school for," Bergmark said. "I had grown up in Mississippi with parents who had been active in the civil rights movement, so I knew I needed to go to a top-tier law school."
As at almost all law schools at the time, Michigan's commitment to public service was more philosophical than practical—until the establishment of the school's first clinic, in which Bergmark participated. The clinic was so popular, she recalled, students had to be selected by lottery.
"Since then, Michigan has obviously come a very long way in terms of promoting and supporting public interest careers," she said. And so it has. From the Dean's Office down, the Law School today encourages public service with a multitude of clinics and programs.
The Champions of Change event (which Michigan Law students are watching in photo below) in the fall, at which Bergmark was honored, helped illustrate the progress that's been made since Bergmark started her work in Mississippi. She has built on the foundation of her earlier work in Mississippi with the 2003 opening of the Mississippi Center for Justice, which has grown into a 30-person offi ce with a $3 million annual budget and which Bergmark helped to found. The organization helps people who otherwise wouldn't have access to high-caliber legal talent protect themselves in the aftermath of devastating natural disasters and the calamitous BP oil spill—all while continuing to fi ght civil rights problems that still crop up in the region.
"This is my crowning chapter, to come back home to Mississippi and start the center in 2003. We've grown it from a gleam in the eye of the founding board members. It's very gratifying to take all those years of public service experience and connections and put all that experience to work in its creation."
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