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South's poor get help in legal battles

The law, once used in the South to keep blacks "in their place," seldom stands so blatantly in the way today. Such basic civil guarantees as the right of all people to be served in public places and to vote have been well established through federal law.

More recent legal battles on behalf of the South's poor -- white and nonwhite -- have been forcing improvements of conditions in some prisons and mental hospitals.

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But the South's poor continue to face a range of subtle legal obstacles that seldom confront that wealthier.

Among them: The poor are losing ownership of inherited rural land at a rapid rate because tax and other laws put them at a disadvantage; disabled textile workers are having little success pressing claims of "brown lung," attributed to high levels of cotton dust in the mills; the poor often are unable to obtain qualified attorneys, sometimes even in cases where they face the death penalty.

One indigent defendant recently convicted of murder in northern Alabama was defended by a court-appointed attorney specializing in real-estate probate cases.

"I think the victory over segregation is essentially established," says Steve Ellman, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) here in Montgomery. But remaining legal challenges facing the poor -- blacks and whites -- are described by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Southeastern regional director, Earl Shinhoster, as "monumental."

Continuing challenges cited by advocates for the poor -- challenges not peculiar just to the South -- include police brutality, access to food stamps and other nutritional assistance, racially unrepresentative juries and grand juries, discrimination on jobs or in the sle or rental of housing, and faulty merchandise.

"The poor are a long way from having representation," says Robert Segall, a Montgomery attorney who is a member of the board of Alabama's Legal Serivces Corporation. Such federally funded corporations have been increasing in numbers; they are helping the poor in many states.

One of the groups trying to help fill this need for legal assistance to the poor is the SPLC. It is a private, nonprofit organization with five attorneys who earn a combined total of $162,000 a year.

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Tieless, some in jeans, with their running shoes lying on the floor by their desks, these attorneys, interviewed here recently, seemed casual. But there is nothing casual about their persistent legal attacks on a variety of issues.

An earlier SPLC case resulted in the integration of the Alabama State Police.

In what he describes as an example of the newer kind of cases being tackled, SPLC attorney Dennis Balske is helping a black man sue the City of Savannah, Ga. , and some of its police officers. The case involves allegedly intentional mishandling of evidence that resulted in more than three years' imprisonment of the black man on murder charges. The man has since been freed and charges against him dropped as a result of the new examination of the case.

Except for challenges under current death-penalty laws, especially in Alabama , Mr. Balske-says he is "optimistic" about legal progress being made on behalf of the poor. But often, he says, it is hard to find a lawyer "willing to buck the system" on behalf of the poor.


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