Lecture Recounts History of Legal Advocacy

May 29, 2009

by Deborah G. Blanchard, Staff Attorney

On May 21, 2009, approximately 75 guests gathered on SCI’s Top Deck to enjoy a cocktail reception at the most recent event in honor of SCI’s 175th Anniversary. The second in the Anniversary Lecture Series, the evening’s topic was “SCI: Leading in Advocacy for Seafarers,” celebrating the long history of advocacy at SCI. Former SCI Board member the Rev. Kurt von Roeschlaub and current Board member Chester Hooper, Esq. co-chaired the event, and the law firm Freehill, Hogan & Mahar sponsored the reception. Lawrence Kahn, a partner at Freehill, Hogan & Mahar, former SCI staff attorney, and the founder of the Center for Seafarers’ Rights Tulane Law School intern program, gave the keynote address.

Although SCI established the Center for Seafarers’ Rights in 1982 to serve as its legal advocacy arm, the origins of the Institute’s commitment to seafarers’ rights stem from the original mission of SCI. Since it was founded in 1834, SCI has dedicated itself to legal advocacy and has worked both to improve legal standards for seafarers collectively and to correct individual injustices.

Kahn’s talk examined the many ways in which SCI has pursued its advocacy mission throughout its 175 years, including reducing the influence of the ‘crimps’, unsavory shoreside workers who perpetuated indebtedness in seafarers by offering loans until payday, helping captains to fill crew shortages.

The evening’s lecture illustrated how SCI was instrumental in the passage of the White Bill of 1898, “perhaps the single most important piece of seamen’s legislation ever passed,” according to Kahn. The White Bill offered a variety of protections related to compensation, grievances, and abolished flogging and all other forms of corporal punishment. The Bill also required daily minimum provisions to be supplied and restricted advances on wages and fees, which was critical to efforts to break the power of the crimps.

SCI also successfully lobbied for other important legislation to protect seafarers, including the Seamen’s Act of 1915, which greatly enhanced the work protections available to seafarers;the Seamen’s Wage Act; and legislation to make first aid training compulsory for officers on merchant ships. For a time, SCI even housed the Seamen’s Branch of the Legal Aid Society.

The lecture aptly captured the long history of advocacy at the Seamen’s Church Institute, which continues today through the Center for Seafarers’ Rights, emblematic as Kahn stated, of SCI’s original mission “to devote the entire strength of the Institute to this much neglected portion of our fellow men.”