In Memoriam: Stephen Pollak – Civil Rights Champion, Branton Honoree, and Early Chair of WLC

Stephen Pollak pictured in November 2023 (upper row, fourth from left), at a reunion with WLC executive director Joanne Lin and WLC board chairs (current and former). Photo by Hollye Weekes/WLC.

Stephen Pollak, a trailblazing civil rights lawyer, died at age 95 earlier this month. He was a pioneer in civil rights law and dedicated his career to the advancement of racial justice, both nationally and locally in the Washington, DC region. He worked on shaping civil rights protections, both inside government at the White House and U.S. Justice Department (“DOJ”) and outside government as a civil rights leader in the private Bar.

Mr. Pollak was an instrumental civil rights leader in the federal government between 1961 and 1969. During the Johnson administration he worked at the White House as Advisor to the President for National Capital Affairs (1967) and at DOJ as Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division (1967-69).

Upon leaving DOJ, Mr. Pollak became one of the founding board members of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs (“WLC”). He served on the WLC Board of Directors for 26 years between 1969 and 1995, chairing the WLC Board between 1970 and 1972. He testified on behalf of WLC before the U.S. Senate on equal education opportunities.

In 1992, Mr. Pollak was honored with the Wiley A. Branton award – WLC’s highest achievement award in recognition of his tireless advocacy for civil rights, equal justice, and economic justice in the Washington, DC region and nationwide.

After his Board service ended in 1995, Mr. Pollak continued to champion the work of WLC – even as recently as November 2023, just two months before his passing, when he attended a reunion of current and former WLC Board chairs.

In addition to his 26 years of WLC Board leadership, Mr. Pollak was a founding member of the DC Access to Justice Commission, president of the DC Bar Foundation, and a longtime board leader of the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“Steve has had a profound impact on the creation of civil rights law – nationally and locally in the Washington DC region,” said Joanne Lin, WLC Executive Director. “He served as advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnson on Washington, DC matters. As Assistant Attorney General of the DOJ Civil Rights Division (1967-69), Steve was charged with enforcing civil rights laws in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the monumental Civil Rights Act (1964), Voting Rights Act (1965), and Fair Housing Act (1968). Later in private practice, he played a pivotal leadership role in challenging the Washington DC private Bar to take on pro bono cases to advance racial equity. We are deeply indebted to Steve for his faithful service on the WLC Board of Directors – spanning 26 years. All of us at WLC – staff and board – share our deepest condolences with the Pollak family, and renew our commitment to fulfilling the vision that he dedicated his life to creating – that of a more just and equitable society.”

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