Harvard Law Today: A plan to beat the Klan Harvard Law alumnus Randolph McLaughlin pioneered an enduring strategy to get justice for victims and bankrupt the Ku Klux Klan

n 1980, five Black women in Chattanooga were wounded when local members of the Ku Klux Klan shot at them from a car window as the women were waiting for a taxicab. Although the assailants were eventually arrested, two of the men were acquitted by all-white juries. A third attacker was convicted but was sentenced to only nine months in prison.

Randolph M. McLaughlin ’78, who worked at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, heard about the case as protests against the verdicts erupted across Chattanooga. As a relatively new attorney, McLaughlin and his colleagues agreed to represent the women — dubbed the Chattanooga Five — in a civil lawsuit against the klansmen, in the hopes of achieving some measure of justice for the victims.

McLaughlin and his team decided to deploy a novel legal strategy they had devised based on a Reconstruction-era statute. They won the landmark case, and not only obtained monetary damages for the women, but also an injunction to prohibit further terrorism against the city’s Black residents.

McLaughlin, who is now a professor of law at Pace University’s Elisabeth Haub School of Law and co-chair of the civil rights practice group at Newman Ferrara LLP in New York, went on to write a book about the approach his team used against the Klan in Chattanooga — a strategy still used today.

McLaughlin’s story is the subject of a new short film, “How to Sue the Klan,” which will screen on Thursday at Harvard Law School. The event, featuring appearances by McLaughlin and film director John Beder, is sponsored by ACS, BLSA, the Committee on Sports and Entertainment Law, and the HLS Film Society.

In advance of the screening, McLaughlin spoke with Harvard Law Today about how he became the lawyer he is today, his trailblazing legal approach, and his advice for aspiring civil rights attorneys.

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