The People’s Champ
Legal Aid from Slavery to Mass Incarceration,
Harvard University Press
Legal aid, the program through which legal assistance is made available to people who cannot otherwise afford it, has had a controversial history. Support for providing legal services has waxed and waned. But while it has not always received widespread acclaim, legal aid has been a legal lifeline for people who would not otherwise have access to some measure of justice.
In The People’s Champ: Legal Aid from Slavery to Mass Incarceration, legal scholar Shaun Ossei-Owusu provides a broad history of legal aid in America. He locates its origins much earlier than has typically been assumed, looking back to the antebellum period when abolitionists actively sought legal rights for fugitive slaves and the white citizens who gave them assistance.
This sweeping narrative of America’s legal aid efforts also reveals how central race was, and continues to be, to the delivery of legal services. While the conventional assumption is that legal aid was focused on the poor, irrespective of race, Ossei-Owusu shows how race has always been central to the way in which legal aid programs operated. This perspective illuminates another angle on the history of discrimination, incarceration, and the delivery of social justice in this country.