The Last Obstacle to the Launch of Virginia Legal Aid Society
To celebrate our 40th anniversary in 2017, Virginia Legal Aid Society is telling 40 stories that reflect our history, our people and the cases and events that have made the past 40 years so memorable. These will be released over the next 40 weeks, finishing at our gala celebration on November 17 in Farmville at the Moton Museum.
In Part 1, the Legal Aid Society of Greater Lynchburg, created by Lynchburg Bar Association, opened in 1972, providing free legal advice in civil cases for low income people. But within a few years, the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP, under the leadership of attorney James Ghee, secured funding for a much larger group that would have multiple offices stretching from Martinsville to Suffolk: Virginia Legal Aid Society.
Knowing the local group would wind up closing if VLAS opened, The Lynchburg Bar Association appealed to two local Congressional representatives, Dan Daniel and Caldwell Butler.
Butler, who had recently gained national prominence as a freshman Republican Congressional representative when he voted to impeach Republican President Richard Nixon, needed convincing that the larger program made sense.
Enter David Levy, who James Ghee had recruited to be VLAS’s Executive Director.
At the time, David was working as Civil Director of National Legal Aid and Defender Association in Washington. David had grown up in Norfolk, and it didn’t take long for the news of the day to steer his life’s work. When he was 13, opposition to desegregation closed his public school. He wound up going to the private Norfolk Academy, while his older sisters transferred to a public high school 30 miles away.
“That had a huge impact on me,” David said. “I saw myself being motivated by equal justice issues and racial justice issues. It was pretty natural that when I ended up in law school, I gravitated toward legal aid services.”
Upon graduation from the University of Virginia’s School of Law in 1970, he left the state for a legal aid job in Rhode Island but kept his eye on Virginia for an opportunity to move back.
It didn’t take long. While in law school, he had helped establish the legal aid office in Charlottesville, the second in the state to open with the support of federal funding. Now the office needed a new executive director, and it chose David. From this position, David helped set up a state funding source, Legal Services Corporation of Virginia, to mirror the federal Legal Services Corporation.
Now James, who had his own story from Virginia’s difficult transition to schools desegregation that we’ll tell in a future chapter, called on David to smooth things out with Rep. Butler.
“He knew people who knew me,” David said. “I come across as a pretty decent guy, and I went and met with him.”
The Congressman dropped his opposition, though he would keep an eye on VLAS for years to come, to make sure the staff was spending those federal dollars wisely. In 1977, VLAS was born, and soon, Legal Aid Society of Greater Lynchburg was gradually transferring its clients to the new group and preparing to close.