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In the Public Interest

After 30 years spent fighting for others, Peter J. O'Connor '63 looks back on a monumental struggle for justice.

By Donald N.S. Unger

Peter J. O’Connor ’63Ethel Lawrence died in 1994. She didn't live to see the completion of the Ethel R. Lawrence Homes in Mount Laurel, N.J., in November 2000. Nor will she get to meet Julian Bond, who has agreed to speak in the spring, to commemorate formally the project's first 100 units. Her daughter and namesake, Ethel Lawrence-Halley will be there for her, however. So will Peter O'Connor '63, the attorney who founded the Fair Share Housing Development Corporation of which the elder Lawrence was president and for which the younger Lawrence currently serves as project administrator.

O'Connor has spent more than 30 years fighting for affordable housing and integration in New Jersey-as much on the basis of class as on the basis of race. The fruits of that labor, on his part and on the parts of Carl Bisgaier and Ken Meiser-all three, initially, as lawyers for Camden Regional Legal Services in southern New Jersey-are collectively known as "The Mount Laurel Doctrine;" or, even more informally, according to the years in which the decisions were handed down by the New Jersey Supreme Court, as Mount Laurel I (1975) and Mount Laurel II (1983)-the 1986 "Hills Decision" is sometimes referred to as Mount Laurel III. It is also due to the work of O'Connor and his various coalition partners that the phrase "Fair Share Housing" has come to apply statewide; the 1983 decision even resulted in the creation of what came to be called "Mount Laurel Courts," whose sole purpose was adjudicating related zoning disputes and determining when a municipality had met its fair share of low- and moderate-income housing.

Basketball and Consciousness-Raising
O'Connor, who came to Holy Cross in 1959 on a basketball scholarship, says that the College provided some of the seeds for the convictions that have come to define his working life. But, in a deeper sense, he describes a kind of cross-pollination that was crucially transformative. During the school year, he was exposed to moral teaching about what society should be like; playing summer league and street basketball off-season, going into the neighborhoods and the homes of the other players-many of them African-American-he saw a different reality. Taking a three-month tour of Latin America-mostly Argentina and Peru-on a Rotary International Scholarship after graduating from Georgetown University Law Center in 1966, he saw deep poverty that made him think not only about what he was seeing abroad but also about what was happening at home.

"The most dramatic thing in going there," he remembers, "was the enormous disparity in wealth and the great degree of poverty in certain areas .You'd be staying with some Rotary person, like the head of Coca Cola, in some kind of mansion, and you'd take a side trip and see what was really happening .The villages with the tin huts, the lack of proper water and sewer and electricity."

But coming home again in 1967 was just as stark. He arrived just in time for the race riots in Newark, during which the National Guard was called out-etching deep the lines between the cities and the suburbs.

"I witnessed what was going on because I lived right next to Newark, in South Orange," he recalls. "Almost on the borderline, they had tanks and jeeps with machine guns and they wouldn't let anyone from Newark come up further than a certain boundary line . I said, 'This is insane.'"

"Those were the things that crystalized my commitment to what I've been doing over all these years," he says, remembering, "the basketball connection and viewing segregation firsthand; the trip to Argentina, to really see extreme poverty; and coming back and seeing the riots. My goal has been to demonstrate in a tangible way that the problems of racial injustice and poverty can be solved. Until our nation resolves these domestic issues, we'll lack the credibility needed to effectively address these matters in the Third World."

Initially, he sought work close to home with the Legal Services Corporation in Newark, but there were no jobs there. He tried further south in New Jersey, first working on migrant labor issues that involved housing, eventually ending up with Legal Services in Camden. In all, he spent nine years working for Legal Services, from 1967 to 1976.

From the Basketball Court to the State Supreme Court
The New Jersey suburb of Mount Laurel is about 25 miles northeast of Philadelphia-which also suffered upheavals and resultant "White Flight" in the 1960s, from which it has yet to fully recover-and 20 miles from Camden-a city whose difficulties have sometimes been so serious that the New Jersey State Police have taken over local patrol duties and which recently saw a sitting mayor, Milton Milan, sent to jail. Like most suburbs, the township's longer history is rural. According to the 1997 book, Our Town, Race, Housing, and the Soul of Suburbia, however, race relations in Mount Laurel were initially better than in many other places. Authors David L. Kirp, John P. Dwyer, and Larry A. Rosenthal begin:

"Black families had lived in the township since late in the seventeenth century, first as slaves and later as tenant farmers. To the most venerable of the black families, the Gaineses and the Stills, their manumission papers, which dated from the American Revolution, were their most prized possessions.

"Generation upon generation, blacks and whites had grown up together and worked the white families' farms together; in hard times they had helped each other out with food and firewood. There had been little overt opposition when, soon after Word War II, blacks sought an end to racially separate public schools."

Housing, however, proved to be another matter, particularly as suburbanization began to take hold and, with it, a growing obsession with "ratables" and attracting "the right people." In October 1970, when the people of the Springville section of the township-where some black residents lived in converted chicken coops and tar paper shacks-awaited a response to the zoning variance they had sought to build 36 garden apartments for themselves and for their children, the answer was a curt "no." 

Ethel Lawrence, who had joined the Springville Action Council in the late 1960s, in large part to address the housing issue, was one of the people who refused to take "no" for an answer. Peter O'Connor, along with fellow Legal Services attorneys and other supporters white and black-such as the Rev. Stuart Wood, a white, Presbyterian minister who had helped draft the proposal for new housing units-took up the cause, filing the first Mount Laurel lawsuit in 1971. 

O'Connor's involvement in the case outlasted his tenure at Legal Services, which he left in 1976, a year after he founded his own nonprofit, public interest law office, the Fair Share Housing Center, in 1975. "Fair Share" is the language that the New Jersey Supreme Court used in its 1975 decision, Mount Laurel I, to describe the obligations of New Jersey's growing cities and towns: the court found an obligation in the state's constitution for municipalities to provide housing for their "fair share" of the state's poor. In 1986, in the wake of the court's Hills decision, O'Connor founded the Fair Share Housing Development Corporation to actually build and manage housing, implementing the Mount Laurel decision on the ground. To date, FSHD has built, and manages, 727 homes, including the Ethel R. Lawrence Homes. And 303 more homes are in the development pipeline.

That task is ongoing and has by no means been easy. While O'Connor is proud of the legal groundwork that he and others have been able to do-law schools now devote entire courses to the "Mount Laurel Doctrine" and O'Connor is a frequent guest speaker-the furrows that have been plowed by these decisions have at best been lightly sown: the rights established in law have not translated into as many housing units as O'Connor and other housing advocates would like to see built-and that virtually everyone agrees are needed to provide adequate housing, in quantity and in quality, for all Americans.

"The problem with the judicial approach," O'Connor concedes, "is that once you get past the theory and into implementation-which is where we are now-it gets harder and harder to actually get the political will behind it."

Racial Hurdles on Both Sides
The point at which O'Connor entered the legal profession was particularly difficult as regards race relations. The urban race riots of the late 1960s, as well as the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, heralded the rise of the Black Power Movement and a growing feeling that African Americans could only address race issues directly; that white people were fundamentally unequipped to understand, and therefore participate in, this struggle. In 1954, when Thurgood Marshall argued Brown vs. the Board of Education before the United States Supreme Court, Jack Greenberg, a white lawyer who had also served as the legal director for the NAACP, sat second chair; by the end of 1968, those kinds of alliances-while by no means gone-were increasingly strained.

O'Connor ascribes his ability to work through this period in interracial coalitions to two primary factors. First, he points again to what he learned as an athlete. "Getting an insight into the minority community through lots of hours spent with people in their homes, traveling, learning who the other people are on their turf, gave me a good insight into how to present myself in dealing with problems in the poor and minority communities."

Second, he points to the credibility that accrues to someone who has demonstrated a commitment over time. Thirty years in, there aren't many people left who have to be convinced of his staying power.

"There's not one person that I've worked with [from the beginning] who's still working on this," he says. "I view what I do not as work-and I don't view it as law-but rather as the pursuit of moral justice. Whenever I get down, or the obstacles get bigger, I just feel that because I'm doing the right thing [that] is sufficient to sustain me."

Help from his Friends
O'Connor has been supported in these endeavors by other members of the Class of 1963 as well, some of whom are on the board of the Fair Share Housing Development Corporation. Among them: Philip J. Fina, a partner in the Boston law firm of Kirkpatrick and Lockhart; Dennis Golden, president of Fontbonne College in St. Louis, Mo.; and the Rev. Monsignor Francis H. Kelley, pastor of the Sacred Heart Church, in Roslindale, Mass., and one of the founders of Boston's Pine Street Inn. In addition, Hank Cutting and Kevin Lawler, also from the Class of '63, have provided O'Connor with long-term personal support and the inspiration to overcome difficult challenges.

These continuities have been crucial, emotionally as much as logistically, in keeping O'Connor going. As he puts it: "Good things and good people come along and renew your faith in people, which is why it's been important to me to have three of my classmates on our board and to have the support of so many other classmates and their wives."

In describing the impact of his time at Holy Cross, O'Connor says, "It's that kind of 'Family Working Together,' that's been imparted to me." An impulse that has also led the Class of 1963 to form a foundation for the support of class members in need of assistance.

He remains tied to the Jesuit community in other ways as well-serving on the board of the Jesuit Mission in Camden, for example, which has been operating out of Holy Name Church for the past 20 years or so, providing five ministries to the community: a church; a school; a legal clinic; a medical clinic and a social work clinic. 

Autumn 2001 finds O'Connor getting ready to go before the New Jersey Supreme Court to argue an important Mount Laurel-related case, this time involving the township of West Windsor, just to the west of Princeton. In his preparation, one can glimpse the groundwork being laid for the next generation of lawyer-activists:

"I have two young lawyers working with me, both of whom clerked on the New Jersey Supreme Court; I have law students that come and work with me," O'Connor says. "We're hoping to provide a presence and a broader perspective to the court."

No doubt they will.

Donald N.S. Unger is a free-lance writer from Worcester.


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