Harlem Renaissance

Attorney James B. O'Neal '77Ox-'79C empowers underprivileged and minority youth through the study of law

By John D. Thomas

Click here for an excerpt from James O'Neal's 1992 Oxford College Commencement address

It's judgment day in Harlem.

A palpable current of tension and excitement crackles through the wood-paneled Columbia University Law School courtroom. After five weeks of intensive training and study at the Summer Law Institute, one of several programs run by the nonprofit Legal Outreach Inc., two small groups of junior high school students wait for New York Family Court Judge Betty Staton to rule on the mock trial they have just argued. The case, which involved the vicious assault and robbery of a woman in her apartment, was anything but clear-cut, and the conflicting evidence, testimony, and alibis have many in the room flummoxed.

While waiting for the decision, fourteen-year-old Latoya Slack, a member of the defense team, says the Summer Law Institute has solidified her desire to become a lawyer. "Yes, definitely," says the energetic and articulate young woman. "During the mock trial, I enjoyed being able to ask questions and to get them answered the way I wanted to. Someday I want to practice criminal law and be a defense attorney. I think this program is great, and I hope they keep it going."

When Judge Staton returns to deliver her opinion, the room goes silent. After complimenting both the defense and the prosecution for "an outstanding job," she rules in favor of the latter. High-pitched shrieks of delight go up from the prosecution team, while the members of the defense bow their heads in stunned defeat.

James B. O'Neal, co-founder and director of Legal Outreach, rises from his seat in the back of the courtroom where he has been watching the proceedings and walks to the front to address the students. Grinning broadly, beaming with pride over their efforts, he tells them, "We can all see there are a lot of budding attorneys here who are really going to make their mark on society."

Since 1982, O'Neal, who graduated from Oxford College in 1977 and from Emory in 1979, has been helping lower-income and minority young people in Harlem's School District Five learn about the law and prepare for legal careers. "I think minority kids and poor kids are capable of doing great things," says the tall, handsome forty year old, who also has a degree from Harvard University Law School and is a lecturer at Columbia. "They just need the structures that the affluent take for granted."

Bertrand Brown, who recently retired as superintendent of School District Five, has high marks for Legal Outreach. "James O'Neal's program has helped our youngsters understand that the law can work for them," he says. "To understand how the law and the justice system work and how they can use the law to their advantage is terribly important. James has been a godsend for our community and for our district.

"James is a very talented young man who came to us with a program that hadn't been fully developed, but he had a very sound concept, and he developed that program into what I think is one of the best in the entire country. He came with a mission, and he believes he has to give back to his people, to empower them. James could be off making lots of money, practicing law and doing quite well, but he's not. But on a moral level, James is very wealthy."


James B. O'Neal grew up in Atlanta, where his parents were schoolteachers. "The importance of education was always emphasized," he says. On the advice of a high school religion teacher who had attended Oxford College, he visited the school near the end of his high school years. "I went to Oxford and liked the fact that it was a small, quaint campus where people seemed to care about each other. And so I was persuaded to come."

At Oxford, O'Neal was chairman of the Honor Council, and he continued his involvement in leadership roles at Emory as president of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. "It was a very young fraternity at that time, but it was a great experience working with a group of guys you called brothers and helping to build something that would be of substance and that would last," he says.

At Emory, O'Neal was a member of Omicron Delta Kappa and Mortar Board. When he graduated in 1979 with a degree in political science, he received the Marion Luther Brittain Award, the highest honor presented to a student at Commencement. In 1992, O'Neal was honored with the Emory Medal and delivered the Oxford College Commencement address.

O'Neal enrolled at Harvard law school in 1979. He had intended to take his degree and work for social justice but came to realize that the law was frustratingly slow to change, even when things were obviously unjust.

"We certainly saw that with school desegregation," he says. "You have a 1954 decision, and thirty years later you're still talking about ways desegregation can be achieved. I went to Harvard with all of this energy and these grand notions of being a change agent and found out that it's not that easy."

After flirting with a career in corporate law, O'Neal returned to his original plan following a profound spiritual awakening. "I started to develop more of a reliance on God and believing that the God we serve through Christ Jesus was a personal God and that he was not dead, that he was alive and still working with and through people to accomplish his will here on earth," he explains. "And so with that belief, I developed the faith to start to believe that maybe I didn't have to go the traditional route and that maybe I could do something different with my life."

When he graduated from Harvard in 1982, O'Neal was able, through a remarkable piece of good fortune, to pursue his dream of helping others. He was the first person to be awarded the school's new public interest law fellowship, in which each member of his class was asked to donate 1 percent of their first-year earnings to a graduate who was going to pursue public interest law. "At that point, I was encouraging my classmates to take those $90,000-a-year jobs," says O'Neal in jest.

O'Neal wanted to find a way to integrate law and education in a manner that would have a positive influence on the lives of young people. Even though he had never even been to Harlem, O'Neal knew it was the place to set up his project.

"People think of Harlem as a place of destitution with deplorable conditions and kids who are incorrigible," he explains, "and I just knew that could not be the case. For the most part, young people anywhere just need their eyes to be opened and need opportunities and people who care about them. So for that reason, Harlem became the perfect place. Also, if I were successful in setting up something meaningful in Harlem, people would say that it could be done anywhere."

In the fall of 1982, O'Neal began working at a youth guidance center in Harlem and teaching a high school class in constitutional law. His students were sincerely intrigued by the law, but when they approached him after class, they never had any questions about the more theoretical aspects of the law. Instead, they quizzed him about practical legal problems they were having, and he realized then that he was going in the wrong direction.

Out of that experience, O'Neal developed the Law and Social Problems Program, which has now been used in Harlem's School District Five for almost fifteen years and reaches more than five hundred students annually. The program is designed to give students a better understanding of their legal rights and responsibilities in relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, landlords and tenants, and police and citizens. Some of the topics examined include recognizing domestic violence and knowing when the police have violated your civil rights.

To reach as many young people as possible, O'Neal enlists the help of his own students at Columbia law school, who in turn teach the basics of the Law and Social Problems Program in District Five high schools. Recent Columbia law school graduate Sara Wolman took O'Neal's class and found that giving practical knowledge to students is essential.

"The idea of imparting knowledge that empowers them in the system is remarkable," she explains. "The legal system is an area they have lots of experience in, in a real, raw, everyday way that I have never had. Yet they don't have the empowering knowledge, they only have the knowledge that says this is a system that wasn't designed for them and that can hurt them."

Another aspect of the Law and Social Problems Program is a yearly mock trial competition in which sixty-four students are chosen from District Five and divided into eight teams. After twelve weeks of training in trial processes and procedures, the teams are given a case and compete in a mock trial tournament judged by New York State Supreme Court justices. O'Neal says the hands-on experience and insight into the law offered by the mock trials frequently are life changing.

"This particular activity was such a confidence booster for almost every kid who went through the program because they were able to do something very hands-on and very practical and also something that's highly esteemed within our society," he says. "They started to really believe in themselves and their potential. We saw kids grow before our eyes."

But several years into the program, O'Neal noticed the kids who had benefited from the mock trial experience and become interested in pursuing law careers were floundering because there was no structure to nurture and build on what they had learned. So in 1989, with no additional funding, O'Neal started a separate program called College Bound to equip students with the skills necessary to follow through on their dream.

Initially, O'Neal selected six students who had done particularly well in the mock trial competition and made a commitment to work with them through their high school years. College Bound eventually included a writing program, debates that focused on questions of constitutional law, mentors, SAT preparation classes, and internships at prestigious New York City law firms. The program has continued to grow, and this year it includes eighty students, twenty each from rising ninth through twelfth graders.

Sandy Santana, one of the first six College Bound students, graduated from Harvard in the spring of 1997 with a degree in government and has been accepted to Columbia law school. He says that without Legal Outreach and College Bound, it would have been difficult for him to achieve what he has.

"I'm from Harlem, a poor area, and my father is a waiter and my mom works at a sewing factory. I had no professionals in my life at all. Legal Outreach introduced me to the world of law and put me in contact with professionals who stressed that what they were doing I could do, and that was really important," says Santana, who is postponing his entry into law school for a year to work at Legal Outreach. "Every time I speak with students, I credit Legal Outreach with where I am today. There are students here who can do the same thing I did. That's what I stress to them-you can obtain what I have if you do these things."

Ironically, with all the success Legal Outreach has had in Harlem, O'Neal has no desire to expand his program. Making a solid impact on a local level is enough for him. "My dream is to have a program that really works well, and I'd rather have a program that's small, complete, and thorough than a large program that does a half job at accomplishing a particular result."

But O'Neal believes similar programs need to be implemented by other people in communities around the country. "I would hope others would see what we are doing and would take the cue and say, I can do this in my area. It's something that certainly needs to happen. I don't think our public schools are doing enough to prepare inner-city kids for the twenty-first century. I don't think the education they're getting is adequate to assure their success in college, if they are even able to get into college. There has to be what I call third-party intervention if young, motivated, but underprivileged kids are to have a real opportunity or are to succeed."

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