Texas Civil Rights Project celebrates, looks back on 25 years

Twenty-five years ago, when Jim Harrington started a two-person outfit in the Rio Grande Valley called the Texas Civil Rights Project, he had no idea how it was going to turn out.

He wanted the legal aid service to take on community issues and put clients that would otherwise not get representation at the center of the organization. Other than that, it was all up in the air.

“I didn’t know how it was going to play out,” Harrington said. “We just responded to things that happened, and a lot of stuff happened in Texas. When I look at that 25-year anniversary, it’s astonishing the amount of things that have happened.”

This year, the Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit that is now nationally recognized and has six offices and 40 staff members across the state, turns a quarter of a century old and is looking back on its legacy while preparing for changes.

Harrington, the group’s founder and director, will step down from the helm in March, but those who remain plan to continue fighting to promote the group’s goal of ensuring social, racial and economic justice and civil liberty. The new director will be publicly announced next month.

Since it began in South Austin, the group has handled more than 2,300 cases for poor and low-income Texans and published 12 human rights reports while spearheading countless other civil rights actions.

Looking back, Harrington said two big cases stand out in his mind. The first, in the early years of the organization, helped secure workers’ compensation and unemployment benefits for farmworkers in South Texas.

“These are basic protections that all people had except for farmworkers,” Harrington said.

The second was a case that effectively ended the state’s practice of surreptitiously collecting and storing the blood samples of all newborn babies without parental consent and then selling them to pharmaceutical companies.

“It set the parameters in limiting government and also protecting people’s privacy,” Harrington said. “Those issues are getting more and more important in this age of social media and surreptitious wiretapping and spying on people.”

Harrington also highlighted a 2004 federal complaint the group filed with the Austin chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People arguing that the Austin Police Department was violating citizens’ civil rights.

That complaint led to a Department of Justice investigation that ended with the police department implementing 260 recommendations, including some concerning use of force, complaint investigation procedures, training and community relations. It also led to the creation of a police shooting database that was one of the first of its kind in the country.

“We began documenting police shootings before black lives officially mattered,” said Nelson Linder, Austin NAACP president, referring to the recent development of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Linder said the Texas Civil Rights Project also has played a big role in the struggle for immigrants’ rights in the state, and the equal treatment of black and brown students, who recent studies have shown are expelled or suspended at higher rates than other students.

Pablo Almaguér, the president of the board of directors for the Oficina Legal del Pueblo Unido Inc. that oversees the organization, said he was very proud of the work it had done for people with disabilities. Last July alone, the group filed 32 accessibility lawsuits across Texas on the anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

That work, Almaguér said, has garnered a lot of attention for the issue and led to many changes.

Going forward, Almaguér hopes the group will stay true to Harrington’s vision of helping the community. The group has always picked the work it does based on what the community needs, he said, and that’s what has allowed them to be so successful and attract so much talent.

“It really depends on the needs of the community, and we get information from the grass-roots level and react to that,” Almaguér said. “The more successful legal aid attorneys never forget the client, and that’s ingrained by Jim.”

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